Sharon suffers stroke

Ailment, called minor, could alter political dynamic


JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was hospitalized last night after suffering a minor stroke, hospital officials said, adding a fresh element of uncertainty to a tumultuous political season in Israel.

Officials at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem said the 77-year-old prime minister was awake and speaking with family members and aides after undergoing tests. Officials said that, contrary to initial reports on Israeli television, he did not lose consciousness.

Sharon remained in control of the government and had received a military briefing at his bedside, said his spokesman, Raanan Gissin.

"He's lucid; he's in full control, fully conscious," Gissin said.

The daily Haaretz newspaper reported on its Web site that Sharon had quipped to one of its reporters by telephone, "I'm fine. I must have just needed a few days off."

The episode came a month after Sharon startled the nation by breaking with the conservative Likud Party to form a new, centrist movement, and in the middle of the campaign leading to Israeli national elections, set for March 28.

There was no immediate indication that Sharon's health problems would prove serious enough to prevent him from continuing to serve as prime minister, a post he has held since 2001. But Sharon's age and health could give voters pause when Israelis go to the polls.

"It's a wild card," said Gideon Doron, a political science professor at Tel Aviv University. "It's going to affect the calculation, but I can't tell you if it's going to affect it immediately. It's too early."

Doron said Israelis would be watching to see whether Sharon appeared back on the job soon. But he said Israeli voters had elected leaders with known health problems, such as former Prime Minister Menachem Begin.

Sharon's new movement, Kadima, or Forward, holds a big lead in polls over its two main rivals, the left-leaning Labor Party and Likud. Recent polls showed Kadima likely to win about 40 of 120 seats in the Knesset, or parliament, with Labor capturing 20 to 25 and Likud trailing with about 12 to 15.

But if Sharon were to drop out, the contest would be thrown wide open. Under Israeli law, Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who also left Likud for Kadima, would take over as national leader if Sharon were unable to serve. Kadima would have to select someone to serve as party chief and candidate for prime minister.

Labor is led by Amir Peretz, a fiery former union leader making his first foray into national politics. Likud chooses its leader today in a primary with two main contenders: former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. Netanyahu, who had been Sharon's chief rival in Likud, has been favored in polls.

Yuval Weiss, a deputy director at Hadassah Hospital, told reporters last night that Sharon's immediate treatment required no invasive procedures and that the prime minister would be kept at the hospital for observation and released soon. He did not elaborate.

Sharon, who is overweight, was rushed to the hospital about 8 p.m. after telling his son, Gilad, by telephone that he did not feel well, according to Israeli television. The elder Sharon, who was riding in a car between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv at the time, was diverted immediately to the hospital, according to the television reports.

As news of his hospitalization spread, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and President Bush made get-well calls, according to Israeli news media, while Palestinian gunmen in the Gaza Strip fired into the air in jubilation that Sharon had taken ill.

Sharon has said his new party -- which includes more than a dozen former members of Likud and some Labor figures, including former Prime Minister Shimon Peres -- is open to compromise with the Palestinians, but he has demanded that they act to rein in militants.

The political picture on the Palestinian side is also in flux. Palestinian voters go to the polls next month to select a new parliament in a race that for the first time includes Hamas.

The long-dominant Fatah party, once led by Yasser Arafat, has found itself beset by voter discontent over years of corruption and mismanagement within the Palestinian Authority.

Last week, a group of the movement's so-called young guard, resentful of persistent cronyism among the Fatah leadership, submitted their own slate of candidates, topped by Marwan Barghouti, the popular uprising leader serving five life terms in an Israeli prison.

Efforts to unify the registered slates since then have proved elusive. But Ahmed Ghneim, a Fatah official who is on the breakaway list, said yesterday that the two factions have agreed to join in a unified Fatah bloc after the election in order to prevent Hamas from achieving control of the parliament.

Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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