As Sharon Lies Ill, a Political Crisis Looms As a medical team begins assessing the damage to Ariel Sharon's brain in the wake of a major stroke, political observers try to gauge the impact of the prime minister's illness on Israeli politics.
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As Sharon Lies Ill, a Political Crisis Looms

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As Sharon Lies Ill, a Political Crisis Looms

As Sharon Lies Ill, a Political Crisis Looms

As Sharon Lies Ill, a Political Crisis Looms

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As a medical team begins assessing the damage to Ariel Sharon's brain in the wake of a major stroke, political observers try to gauge the impact of the prime minister's illness on Israeli politics.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Ariel Sharon is breathing on his own this morning as doctors at a Jerusalem hospital began bringing the Israeli leader out of a medically induced coma. The hospital's director says breathing independently is the first sign of brain activity. Later today, doctors hope to be able to assess the damage caused by the massive stroke that Sharon, who's 77, suffered last week. They say it's unlikely he'll be able to function as prime minister again and that leaves Israelis wondering if Sharon's new political party, Kadima, can survive without him. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

PETER KENYON reporting:

Jerusalem residents yesterday wrapped up against a sudden chill that enveloped the capital and pondered the question of who's best qualified to be the next leader of Israel. Benjamin Klein(ph), a 63-year-old religious Jew, wasn't a Sharon supporter before the stroke, but like the majority that does back Sharon, he finds himself bereft of a candidate now.

Mr. BENJAMIN KLEIN: Oh, that's my problem. I've got no one--confidence in no one today. I think that's the problem of many, many Israelis.

KENYON: So far, Kadima, the party Sharon formed when he ended his longtime ties to the conservative Likud Party, is still leading in the very early polls for the March 28th elections. Some Kadima supporters on the street were not impressed with Sharon's likely successor, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. But most in this unscientific sample shared the view of 35-year-old Ahriz Muzafi(ph).

Mr. AHRIZ MUZAFI: I'm still--will stay with Kadima.

KENYON: Yeah? Why?

Mr. MUZAFI: Yeah. Because I think it's the direction of Sharon that's staying there. I think that what happened to Sharon just show people that still we're going in one direction and not about some--one man.

KENYON: Delicatessen worker Michael Frances(ph), at heart a Labor supporter, admits that no one knows exactly where Sharon was trying to lead the country. But he says Kadima, which means forward in Hebrew, deserves a chance to carry on even without its founder.

Mr. MICHAEL FRANCES: First of all, I see Kadima as only people that can really make changes here. I know it sounds a bit weird, because Kadima was Sharon. But something happened during this few months. There is a new order in a way here. Something new is developing.

KENYON: Political scientist Reuven Hazan, at Hebrew University, says if Olmert, the longtime political insider and former Jerusalem mayor, doesn't convince voters he's capable of leading the country during this volatile period, the main beneficiaries are likely to be Likud and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the longtime rival Sharon managed to outfox time and again over the years.

But beyond the short-term implications, Hazan says the real impact of Sharon's expected departure from the political scene could be on his ambitious and controversial plan to redraw the lines on the map of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. He notes that Sharon could easily have played it safe and won another term in office under the Likud banner.

Mr. REUVEN HAZAN (Political Scientist, Hebrew University): The fact that he split off to form Kadima, which in Israeli political history from Ben Gurion through Moshe Dayan through others, we've seen and they've all failed miserably. Sharon was fighting against history and he, according to the polls, was going to do it for the first time. He did it because he wanted to do something.

KENYON: Hazan believes Sharon's mission has always been to redraw Israel's borders in the absence of an agreement with the Arab world, not to satisfy the Palestinians who rejected Sharon's unilateral approach to a two-state solution, but to increase the security of the Jewish state. Hazan says that project is now in doubt if Sharon doesn't return.

Mr. HAZAN: Sharon would have moved on the West Bank, something. I can't tell you if it would have been a complete withdrawal, a partial withdrawal, an agreement or not, but we would have in the next 48 months seen Israel's borders change. That is going to be much more difficult for Ehud Olmert to do.

KENYON: Hazan says while you can't compare this medical emergency to the assassination of former Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish extremist, Israel may someday look back on the events of this past week as a similar kind of setback for the peace process.

Mr. HAZAN: The future of Israel looked like it was going to become more normal. And once again, we were almost there and we had it taken away from us.

KENYON: Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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