Sharon's career is over, say his aides
• Sharon battles for life as aides say his political career is over
• Concerns over future peacemaking after successful Gaza evacuation
• Successor sought with strength to continue territorial withdrawals
"He was the prime instigator of the settlement movement and the prime mover to rectify the damage it caused. His nickname 'Bulldozer' best describes his role in the military and politics, a non-ideological aggressive doer." - Jossi Alpher, Jaffee Centre of Strategic Studies
Story in full ISRAELI prime minister Ariel Sharon, heavily sedated and on a respirator, battled for his life yesterday following a severe stroke while stunned Israelis grappled with the uncertainty posed by the departure of their country's biggest political player.
Surgeons at Jerusalem's Hadassah Hospital said they had stemmed bleeding in the 77-year-old leader's brain in a seven-hour operation. They described his condition afterwards as "critical but stable".
But Dr Shlomo Mor-Yosef, the hospital's director, when asked if Sharon would resume work, said: "I must point out that, regarding the future, under the current circumstances it will not be possible."
And aides to Mr Sharon said they did not expect him to be able to resume his duties as prime minister, leaving a huge vacuum in Israeli politics despite an orderly transfer of power to Ehud Olmert, the No 2 in Mr Sharon's Kadima party.
The end of Mr Sharon's controversial five decades in the senior ranks of the Israeli military and then in the frontline of politics resets the Middle East power equation. He was viewed as the only Israeli leader with the hawkish credentials, forcefulness and determination to beat the hardliners and deliver up the West Bank in a peace deal with the Palestinians, if he decided.
However, it seems more likely that he intended to follow up last summer's withdrawal from Gaza with a unilateral pullback in the West Bank aimed at making its major settlements part of Israel.
The end of the Sharon era spells political tumult in the run-up to the 28 March elections, which he was expected to win overwhelmingly. It throws the race into an open contest among the left-wing Labour party under Amir Peretz, the hawkish Likud party under Benjamin Netanyahu, and Kadima, the party Mr Sharon formed in October by breaking with Likud, which he helped establish.
Roni Bar-On, a Kadima MP, called yesterday for unity behind Mr Olmert, a close ally of Mr Sharon in implementing the Gaza withdrawal. "We have unlimited faith in his ability to lead the country," Mr Bar-On said.
But analysts said Kadima, which includes politicians of right- and left-wing backgrounds united in thinking Mr Sharon a winning electoral horse, could fragment.
Good wishes to Mr Sharon poured in from world leaders - though there were some expressions of satisfaction at his plight in the Arab and Islamic worlds. The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who unsuccessfully tried to convince Mr Sharon to negotiate a peace agreement with him, said he was following Mr Sharon's health with "great worry" but that it would not derail Palestinian elections scheduled for 25 January.
President George Bush praised Mr Sharon as a "a man of courage and peace", saying he and his wife Laura "share the concerns of the Israeli people and we are praying for his recovery".
A spokesman for Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, said: "The world is on the verge of being rid of one of its worst leaders. Sharon's fate is divine intervention reserved for despots."
Mr Sharon rose to prominence as an Israeli army commander specialising in bloody cross-border reprisal raids during the 1950s. He became something of a hero for leading Israel's counterattack against Egypt during the 1973 Middle East war. After founding the Likud party and helping it win the 1977 election, he became sponsor of a huge settlement drive in the occupied territories, which continues in parts of the West Bank.
In 1982, he oversaw Israel's invasion of Lebanon and was found by an Israeli state commission to bear "personal responsibility" in the massacre by Israeli-allied Lebanese Christian militiamen of between 700 and 1,500 Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps.
However, his successful evacuation of hard-line settlers from the Gaza Strip last summer capped his rehabilitation in the eyes of much of the international community and set a precedent that could be important for future Middle East peacemaking.
"Sharon gave Israelis a sense of security and unity," said Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. "He was the prime instigator of the settlement movement and the prime mover to rectify the damage it caused. His nickname 'Bulldozer' best describes his role in the military and politics, a non-ideological aggressive doer."
Mr Alpher added: "Sharon did not believe in peace. He did not believe our neighbours are able to live in peace with us so he was against concessions for peace. He voted against the peace treaty with Egypt, he abstained on the peace treaty with Jordan, he did not take the roadmap seriously. Part of his legacy is the rejection of peace as a track Israelis should make serious concessions for."
WHO MIGHT TAKE OVER
Mr Peretz defeated Shimon Peres in the Labour Party's leadership contest three months ago, but he is now trailing in opinion polls. To win, he will have to beef up his security credentials, perhaps in alliance with the former prime minister Ehud Barak. A backer of peace negotiations, Mr Peretz's fortunes are tied to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president.
THE hawkish Likud party leader is seen as the main beneficiary of the absence. He will now try to draw Kadima voters by arguing that as prime minister in 1996-99 his firmness on security reduced the number of Palestinian attacks and that as finance minister in 2003-5 he pulled the country out of recession.
THE acting prime minister must keep Ariel Sharon's Kadima party together and lead it in the 28 March election. Breaking with Likud party ideology and his own history of support for settlers when he was mayor of Jerusalem from 1993 to 2003, Mr Olmert emerged as the key spokesman for Mr Sharon's decision to withdraw Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip last summer. He has three decades of political experience, but lacks wide popularity and security credentials.
THE justice minister who broke with Likud in backing the Gaza withdrawal and joined Ariel Sharon's Kadima party, will probably determine whether it holds together. A lawyer and former Mossad employee, she is an unknown quantity in foreign affairs, a portfolio she had been expected to assume next week. She is backing Ehud Olmert for now.
THE Nobel Peace Prize winner offers Israelis the comfort of familiarity and experience.
However, although he has served briefly as prime minister three times, Mr Peres has never won an election outright and it is questionable whether the Israeli public wants to place its future in the hands of an 82-year-old.
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