January 12, 2006

Israeli campaign picks up as Sharon still critical

By Matt Spetalnick

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel returned to its election
campaign on Thursday with Ariel Sharon's main rival ordering
his party's ministers to quit the cabinet as the prime minister
remained unconscious after a massive stroke.

Three cabinet members from the right-wing Likud party led
by Benjamin Netanyahu left Israel's ruling coalition, going
ahead with a move that had been put on hold since Sharon's
brain hemorrhage last week.

The resignations will have no effect on the viability of
Israel's caretaker government, headed by interim Prime Minister
Ehud Olmert, but added to a sense of politics as usual before
the March 28 general election.

A week into a health crisis that has cast a pall over
Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects, Sharon, 77, remained in
critical condition despite displaying basic physical reflexes
as his anaesthetic was gradually reduced.

Medical sources said doctors could end Sharon's sedation
later on Thursday as part of their effort to rouse him from an
induced coma and assess the extent of the damage to his brain.

"The decision to end sedation outright requires a major
deliberation," a source said. Hospital spokesman Ron Kromer
said Sharon would undergo a new brain scan.

Signaling Washington's intent to keep Middle East diplomacy
from sliding into limbo, President George W. Bush telephoned
Olmert to express solidarity.

U.S. and Israeli officials said Olmert could be invited to
the White House as early as next month.

Even with Sharon off medication, it could be days before
doctors can assess the impairment to his faculties from the
January 4 hemorrhage. With his hospital stay expected to last
months, Sharon is given little chance of returning to politics.


As Israelis kept vigil for the former army general,
political wrangling ahead of the election, which Sharon had
been widely favored to win, resumed after a week-long

After resisting at first, Agriculture Minister Yisrael
Katz, Education Minister Limor Livnat and Health Minister Danny
Naveh agreed to Netanyahu's demand to leave the cabinet to
distance Likud from policies now set by Sharon's new centrist
Kadima party.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom was the only Likud cabinet
member who held back, but even he was expected to submit his
resignation at the next cabinet meeting on Sunday.

Olmert, Sharon's likely successor as head of Kadima, can
appoint his allies to the vacant posts. Kadima has been boosted
by polls showing it would crush Likud and center-left Labor in
the national ballot even without Sharon at the helm.

Sharon broke away from Likud in November in the face of a
rebellion by Netanyahu and other party hardliners over Israel's
pullout from Gaza in September after 38 years of occupation.

Much of Sharon's popularity among Israelis stems from a
belief that he could take further diplomatic action with the
Palestinians that no one else could get away with, given his
background as an archetypal hawk.

He had hinted at giving up some occupied land in the West
Bank, but vowed to hold on to major settlement blocs there, a
prospect Palestinians said would deny them a viable state.

Israelis stunned by the loss of Sharon, who has dominated
the country's politics in recent years like no figure since
founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, have been buoyed by
signs that his condition is improving -- albeit slowly.

While doctors now give Sharon a high probability of
survival, they caution against being too optimistic about his
chances of recovery. "The prime minister's life is still in
danger," neurosurgeon Jose Cohen told Channel One on Wednesday.

If doctors declare Sharon permanently incapacitated, they
will pass on their finding to Israel's attorney general. The
cabinet would then elect an acting prime minister from among
Kadima's cabinet members who are also members of parliament.

Olmert is seen as all but certain to keep the job in the
run-up to the March election. Polls show Kadima under his
leadership could win up to 45 seats in the 120-seat parliament
while Likud might have as few as 13, a steep drop from its
current total of 40.

However, Kadima's opponents and many commentators suggested
the surveys' findings had been skewed by sympathy for Sharon
that could diminish over time, making it a more wide-open race.

Many Israelis doubt whether Olmert, 60, a former Jerusalem
mayor and Sharon loyalist who has served in the prime
minister's shadow, has the stature and charisma to take bold
steps with the Palestinians that Sharon may have envisioned.

Netanyahu hopes to revive Likud's chances by painting
himself as an experienced leader with strong security
credentials for handling conflict with the Palestinians.

(Additional reporting by Megan Goldin and Ori Lewis in