Week in Review: Sharon, Iraq

Scott Simon and Daniel Schorr review the week's news. Topics include the health of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the political implications for Israel and the Middle East; and rising violence in Iraq.

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

SHLOMO MOR: (Through Translator) The CT scan today showed a slight reduction in the edema in his brain, which means a slight improvement in the CT scan picture. The condition of the prime minister is still critical. The other tests that we are following--as you all know from reports in the last two days, the intercranial pressure is maintained. It is within normal range.

SIMON: An interpreter speaking for Dr. Shlomo Mor-Yosef, director of Jerusalem's Hadassah Ein Karem Hospital, this morning.

The prognosis for Mr. Sharon is grave. He suffered a massive stroke on Wednesday and has since undergone three surgeries to relieve pressure on his brain. Today the prime minister underwent a brain scan to determine whether swelling and bleeding persists there. He is still in that medically induced coma.

NPR senior news analyst Dan Schorr joins us.

Good morning, Dan.

DAN SCHORR: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And Prime Minister Sharon's health problems really begin in December. He suffered what was described as a mild stroke; given blood thinners. Of course, that treatment, in fact, has been questioned this week as to whether or not this made a second stroke more difficult to treat. Doctors now indicate he may be paralyzed from the waist down. Certainly, there are questions about what mental faculties he might have remaining. It seems to be fair to point out that the public life of Ariel Sharon, certainly an active prime ministership, seems to be at an end. Help us understand the significance of this moment in Israel and the region.

SCHORR: Well, politics in Israel, as in other countries, tends to revolve around charismatic figures, people who can afford protection. And so Prime Minister Sharon has had greater support for his new centrist party, Kadima, than either Likud on the right or Labor to the left. He's also had unstinting support of the Bush administration, seemed well on his way to winning a runaway victory in the election in March. The question now is--we will follow with great anxiety the ups and downs, and maybe there'll be mainly downs, but I think in political terms, as you suggested, the end has been reached in what you might call the Sharon era, and it's time to think now of what happens next.

Ehud Olmert is acting prime minister. He was a deputy. Can he establish himself between now and March? Some are inclined to doubt it. So the outlook is for some instability in Israel, maybe a lot, and maybe the Likud hawks may make a comeback.

SIMON: Hmm. Of course, that party headed by Benjamin Netanyahu. I was struck by a phrase I isolated for you that the Jerusalem Post writes this morning, where in speaking of General Sharon, they say, `Affinity--there is affinity for the man whose image somehow transformed over the years from Tarzan to Santa Claus.'

SCHORR: Yeah.

SIMON: I don't know if I would have phrased it that way, but I certainly admire a good phrase. Was--your estimation of the region is so deep. Did you sense that there was, if not a change in General Sharon, perhaps a change in the country to view the two-state solution as being optimal?

SCHORR: Oh, there's a big change in General Sharon. I mean, this person who practically was a founding member of the Likud, and who for a long, long time insisted--started the movement to put Jewish settlements on the West Bank, and now he was the one who withdrew from Gaza and a little bit of the West Bank as well. That was a profound change, but apparently a profound change that seems to have been generally welcome in Israel, where the left hasn't done much for them and the right hasn't done much for them, so why not--let's try the center.

SIMON: At the same time that this drama is unfolding in Jerusalem, you have a Palestinian election campaign, where elections are scheduled later this month.

SCHORR: That's right. You have the Palestinian election, and this will be another source of instability. Things apparently seem to be quite chaotic in Gaza now, and the question is, what's going to happen? The Hamas, which is the militant faction in Israel, seems to be gaining, and the question is, what happens if there is an election and the wrong guys win, so to speak? There is a sense of volatility entering into affairs now. It reminds me a little bit of what happened after the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin. Israel prizes its leaders, and so, for whatever reason, when it loses a leader, it is very nervous.

SIMON: Mahmoud Abbas is talking about postponing the election.

SCHORR: That's right. That's...

SIMON: Is that a possibility?

SCHORR: It's a possibility, but that's opposed by the Bush administration, for one. I don't know if Israel's taking a position on it. There's good reason to want to postpone it, because the Hamas, which is the opposition to him, is coming up. What will happen if you do postpone it? Is that itself a sign of instability? It means that all the matters there are going to be worked out in the next few months.

SIMON: Events in Iraq sharpened this week. The losses because of violence were just terrific. Suicide bombings in locations killed as many as 130 people alone on Thursday. Shiite pilgrims seem to have mainly been the target, and sectarian unrest is stirring. What do you see as the cause and effect of these bombings?

SCHORR: Well, they're all waiting to see how the vote comes out in the recent election, but even the results so far would indicate that the Shiites have a commanding edge and will probably form the government. The problem now, or one of many problems, seems to be getting the Shiites to make enough concessions to the Sunnis to avoid what looks like a threatening civil war. There's even been some fighting among rival factions of the insurgents. There are the native Iraqi ones, and then there are ones who come from abroad, the al-Qaeda supporters from elsewhere. And very interestingly, The New York Times today says that the United States has opened up discussions with insurgents in the field and has also made communication with insurgents elsewhere outside Iraq in--through third parties.

SIMON: Now here in the United States, Dan, Jack Abramoff has pled guilty to three counts of corruption and tax evasion...

SCHORR: Yeah.

SIMON: ...essentially turning state's evidence. He's going to cooperate with authorities on a wider probe into his dealings with lawmakers. And then there's news that Tom DeLay has decided to give up his position as House majority leader permanently. Now there's absolutely no suggestion these two events are related, but together, do they foretell some real changes in Congress?

SCHORR: Well, I think so, because Tom DeLay was basically the symbol of the way they were riding roughshod in Congress, anti-regulation, anti-Democratic, and the result of that is that some Republicans submitted a petition asking to have a change, and I think he saw the handwriting on the wall.

I think that Congress has really sort of looked at itself and didn't like what it saw in the mirror. That was the kind of a regime that was run by Tom DeLay. I think that that augurs a lot of other changes as well.

SIMON: OK. Dan, nice talking to you. Thanks very much.

SCHORR: My pleasure.

SIMON: Dan Schorr.

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