Israel is resigning itself to politics without Ariel Sharon.
Shock gripped the Jewish state last week when Sharon was hospitalized with a massive stroke, turning to fears for the worst when he underwent repeated surgery.
Doctors said it could take time to ascertain whether Sharon had suffered cognitive damage or permanent paralysis on the left side of his body from the Jan. 4 stroke. At press time, it also was not certain that Sharon would recuperate at all -- his condition was such that it could deteriorate at any moment.
Still, a prognosis took shape whereby Sharon could survive but in a form of forced retirement. Sharon's chief surgeon, Dr. Jose Cohen, said this week that Sharon had a "very high" chance of surviving.
"He is a very strong man, and he is getting the best care," the Jerusalem Post quoted Cohen as saying. "He will not continue to be prime minister, but maybe he will be able to understand and to speak."
As the prime minister lay in a post-operative coma Sunday, his temporary replacement, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, chaired the weekly Cabinet meeting.
"We hope that the prime minister will recover, gain strength and with God's help will return to run the government of Israel and lead the State of Israel," Olmert said.
While noting that doctors' reports from Jerusalem's Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center at Ein Kerem had given a "glimmer of hope" as to Sharon's chances of recuperating, Olmert said matters of state were as robust as ever.
"We will continue to fulfill Arik's will and to run things as he wished," he said, using Sharon's nickname. "Israeli democracy is strong, and all of the systems are working in a stable, serious and responsible manner. This is just as it should be and how it shall continue."
With general elections looming on March 28, the 60-year-old Olmert has his hands full. But he received an early show of support with a weekend phone call from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
There was also an internal reprieve from the Likud Party, which decided against resigning from the government, reversing a decision made before Sharon suffered his stroke last week.
"Now is not the time for such moves," Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, one of four Cabinet members from the Likud, told Army Radio.
A Channel 10 television survey issued after Sharon was stricken predicted that his new centrist party, Kadima, would take 40 of the Knesset's 120 seats in the election if it is led by Olmert. But analysts suggested the showing reflected short-term public sympathy.
The political correspondent for the newspaper Ha'aretz, Aluf Benn, recalled the aftermath of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination in 1995, when opinion polls showed his successor, Shimon Peres, as a clear favorite for re-election. In the end, Benjamin Netanyahu defeated Peres by the slimmest of margins.
"Instead of presenting himself as pressing ahead with Rabin's path, Peres made the mistake of insisting that he was an autonomous candidate," Benn said, suggesting Olmert, the former mayor of Jerusalem, was wise to portray himself as a reluctant stand-in for Sharon.
Yet the Channel 10 survey found that Peres, should he lead Kadima, would perform better than Olmert, taking 42 Knesset seats.
Though Peres quit the Labor Party last year to back Sharon, he has yet to formally join Kadima. But he voiced support for Olmert, who advanced the idea of a unilateral Israeli pullout from occupied Gaza prior to Sharon's public embrace of the strategy.
"He supported the policies of Mr. Sharon and even occasionally was ahead of him," Peres told Britain's Sky Television. "The policies for peace, the continuation of the policies of Sharon, will have my full support."
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