The health crisis that has removed Israel's leader Ariel Sharon from the political scene has plunged both the country and the region into deep uncertainty ahead of imminent elections for both the Palestinians and Israel, writes Nuala Haughey in Jerusalem.
With the 77-year-old ex-general last night fighting for his life in a Jerusalem hospital after suffering a massive stroke and brain haemorrhage, Israelis and world leaders are grappling with the huge ramifications of the loss of such a determined and popular leader.
The gravity of Mr Sharon's illness makes it unlikely he will return to power, creating a vacuum in Israeli politics and dashing Washington's hopes for movement in the Middle East which the Bush administration had pinned on Mr Sharon's ability to take decisive action.
Doctors treating Mr Sharon in Jerusalem's Hadassah University Hospital said yesterday he would remain under heavy sedation and on a respirator until tonight following major brain surgery, and was unlikely to return to work.
Mr Sharon suffered a cerebral haemorrhage, or bleeding stroke, on Wednesday in the midst of his campaign for re-election next March as head of the new centre-right Kadima party, which he founded after quitting the right-wing Likud last November.
Kadima was built entirely around Mr Sharon who leaves no natural successor. While his interim replacement, deputy prime minister Ehud Olmert, will hope to unite Kadima ahead of the March polls, it is unlikely that the party will now achieve the overwhelming electoral success predicted.
Israel's two other major parties - the left of centre Labor and the right-wing Likud led by the hawkish former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu - will hope the crisis will give them a fresh chance to take part in any future coalition government. Analysts say a terrorist attack or even a strong showing by the militant Islamic group Hamas in the Palestinian elections, scheduled for January 25th, could push enough Israeli voters to the right for the outcome to be a Likud-led coalition.
Whoever succeeds Mr Sharon as prime minister, it is highly unlikely they will have the ability of the hawkish leader, known as "the bulldozer", to coerce both the Palestinian enemy and Israel's testy political establishment. Nor is any other current prime ministerial candidate likely to enjoy the confidence of Washington that Mr Sharon had skilfully engendered.
Mr Sharon's departure from the political stage is also a major blow to his policy of unilateral "disengagement" from Palestinian lands, which saw him evacuate the Gaza Strip this summer after 38 years of occupation in the teeth of strong opposition from the right of his own party which ultimately split over the move.
An Israeli newspaper this week carried a "leak" of what it said was Mr Sharon's strategy if elected prime minister for the third time in March - to follow up on the Gaza withdrawal by a bolder step. Maariv said this would involve annexing further territory in the occupied West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem while withdrawing illegal Jewish settlers from some areas as part of an "interim settlement" imposed on Palestinians.
While some world leaders paid tribute's to Mr Sharon, with President Bush describing him as "a man of courage and peace", Arab leaders were less supportive of the man widely seen as a war criminal for his policies in the occupied Palestinian territories as well as his war record in Lebanon and in battles in the early years of the state of Israel.
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas last night said he was following Mr Sharon's health crisis "with great worry", but it would not derail Palestinian parliament elections.
© The Irish Times