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Sharon's Stroke a Blow to Mideast Progress

The news tonight appears to be grim concerning the fate of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Reports indicate that the 77 year old leader suffered a "significant" cerebral hemorrhage and is undergoing surgery to stop internal bleeding in his brain. Analysis from the Jerusalem Post:

Until ten o'clock Wednesday night, the next Knesset elections seemed tied up in a bag. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had already weathered a minor stroke, his son's conviction of fraud, and what seemed at first like new allegations of bribery against himself. But he continued to roar ahead in the polls. Energetic new leaders in Labor and the Likud proved powerless to stop his new virtual party, Kadima, which only Wednesday gained its highest-yet result in the polls: 42 members in the next Knesset.

That's all over for now. Even if Sharon fully recovers from his major stroke, there is no way that he will be able to act as prime minister during the next couple of months, and full-time election campaigning is definitely out of the question. The question that remains is not what will happen with Sharon - we all wish him good health - but he is out of the picture at least for the coming elections that will have to be held on time.

The question is whether Kadima has a future without Sharon. A significant number of politicians and public figures have joined the party, following Sharon. With him gone, internecine squabbling over the leadership could well break out. The prime minister's responsibilities have been handed over to Finance Minister Ehud Olmert according to law, but few Kadima members will want one of the most unpopular politicians in the country to lead them into the elections.

Over a third of the electorate were willing to vote for Kadima for one reason only. They relied on Ariel Sharon as the country's leader. What is left for them now?

Sharon was the one leader who had the stature and credibility to pull off the unilateral disengagement from Gaza and the planned disengagement from parts of the West Bank. Ehud Olmert, the new Prime Minister, will undoubtedly get a huge boost of support in the short term, but I question his long-term ability to withstand the challenge that will come from Netanyahu on the right.

Charles Krauthammer called this one of "the greatest catastrophes in Israel's history" and unfortunately I fear that may not be an overstatement.