JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a mild stroke Sunday, but his condition quickly improved and his doctor said he was expected to be released from the hospital after a few days. Sharon aides said he was lucid and in control of the government.
The prime minister never lost consciousness and was talking and joking with his family hours after arriving at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital, doctors said. He was treated with blood thinners and suffered no damage from the stroke, said his personal physician, Boleslaw Goldman.
“He’s lucid, he’s fully functional,” Sharon aide Raanan Gissin said.
Sharon, 77 and very overweight, has been a fixture of Israeli politics for more than three decades. His illness came a little more than three months before he was to lead his new Kadima Party into national elections, and his illness could hamper his efforts to finish building the nascent centrist faction, which has a commanding lead in the polls.
The stroke was almost certain to make Sharon’s health a major campaign issue, but it would have little immediate effect on Israeli policy or peace efforts since no major decisions were expected during the campaign.
The Web site of the Haaretz daily newspaper reported that one of its reporters spoke to Sharon late Sunday night.
“I’m fine,” Haaretz quoted him as saying. “Apparently I should have taken a few days off for vacation. But we’re continuing to move forward,” he said, making a play on the name of his party, Kadima, which means “forward” in Hebrew.
Sharon received get-well messages from Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, Egyptian President
Hosni Mubarak and U.S. envoy Elliot Abrams, who was speaking on behalf of the U.S. government, Gissin said.
However, in Gaza, dozens of armed men from the Popular Resistance Committees, a small Palestinian militant group, fired guns in the air, screamed “Sharon is dead!” and handed out pastries to motorists in celebration of the news that Sharon was ill.
Palestinian militants view Sharon, who led
Israel’s fight against the five-year Palestinian uprising, as a hated enemy despite his pullout from the
Gaza Strip earlier this year.
“Their celebration is a bit premature and exaggerated — the prime minister is very well,” Gissin said.
Sharon grew weak and confused Sunday evening soon after a meeting with former Prime Minister Shimon Peres. The premier was immediately rushed to the hospital in his official vehicle and taken to the emergency room, media reports said. Sharon’s sons, Omri and Gilad, rushed to the hospital.
“Initial checks showed he had a mild stroke. and during checks his condition improved. He was always conscious and didn’t need any surgical intervention,” said Yuval Weiss, the hospital’s deputy director.
Goldman said the prime minister did not lose consciousness and was having no problems with his motor skills. He was certain the prime minister would recover fully.
“Unequivocally, there is no damage,” Goldman, said. “He had anticoagulant treatment. He will need to be in the hospital for a few days.”
If Sharon is incapacitated, Vice Premier Ehud Olmert, a close ally, would take over the day-to-day running of the government.
But Cabinet Secretary Yisrael Maimon said that would not be necessary.
“Because the prime minister is functioning and communicating and talking, there is no relevance to the question of who will act in his place,” he told reporters. “He himself asked to be released tonight to go home, and the doctors suggested he stay under observation.”
Sharon, a former army general, was elected prime minister in 2001, months after the beginning of nearly five years of Israel-Palestinian violence. Sharon led the Israeli crackdown on the Palestinian uprising and was vilified by many Palestinians.
Then he led Israel’s pullout from the Gaza Strip last summer after 38 years of occupation.
Following the Gaza pullout, Sharon threw the Israeli political map into disarray while preparing to run for a third term in office in March 28 elections.
Sharon split from the Likud Party, which he helped found three decades ago, saying it had become too extreme. A group of hard-line Likud lawmakers bitterly fought against Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal plan. They lost the battle, but Sharon determined that he could no longer lead the party.
Polls show that Sharon’s new party — which includes more than a dozen former Likud lawmakers — would finish far ahead of other parties, all but guaranteeing he would form the next government and remain prime minister for a third term.
However, Kadima is built around Sharon, and if he were to fall ill, it almost certainly would suffer a blow in the polls.
Sharon’s health and age have always lurked in the background of his term as prime minister. The ex-army general has never released his medical records but has insisted in recent years that he is not suffering from any serious ailments.
Goldman said the premier had no serious health problems in the past aside from his weight, which he had been struggling with for decades. Sharon undergoes annual checkups, Goldman said.
Mini-strokes are rarely of major consequence by themselves, but they signal a high risk that a person will suffer a full-blown stroke in the coming months: one in seven within a year, according to the
American Heart Association.
Mini-strokes — medically known as transcient ischemic attacks, or TIAs — are caused by a blood clot that forms anywhere in the body and lodges in a vessel in the head, depriving a region of the brain of blood and oxygen.
“There was no indication that this was going to happen,” he said.
Sharon has been one of the most charismatic and controversial figures in Israel during a public career that has spanned more than half a century.
He fought in most of Israel’s wars, gaining a reputation as a military genius known for daring tactics and sometimes disobeying orders. But his reputation as an Israeli war hero was tarnished by a massacre of Palestinian refugees in the early 1980s, when he was defense minister.
An Israeli commission rejected Sharon’s contention that he knew nothing about the massacre and found him indirectly responsible, costing him his job as defense minister.
He rejected that finding and stayed in the government as a minister without portfolio. Sharon gradually rehabilitated himself, serving in parliament and holding a variety of Cabinet posts through the 1980s and 1990s.
He became known as “the bulldozer,” never shy of confrontation, a man who could get things done, but who showed little regard for the opinions of his critics.