JERUSALEM—Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a serious stroke and was rushed into surgery Wednesday evening just hours before the 77-year-old leader was scheduled to undergo a minor heart operation.
Hospital officials said the veteran leader known as "The Bulldozer" was put under general anesthesia after doctors discovered massive bleeding in his brain.
Israel immediately transferred power to Sharon's deputy prime minister as supporters in Jerusalem began to gather outside the hospital to await word on their leader's fate.
The dramatic downturn in Sharon's health created serious doubt about the prime minister's ability to lead his new centrist political party to victory in elections less than three months away and raised questions as to whether his political career may be over.
In Washington, President Bush—who enjoyed a close personal relationship with Sharon—called the prime minister "a man of courage and peace."
"On behalf of all Americans, we send our best wishes and hopes to the prime minister and his family," Bush said in a statement.
Sharon's rapid deterioration came less than three weeks after the prime minister suffered a small stroke that appeared to leave him with no serious aftereffects. Doctors were expected to repair a small hole in his heart that was discovered after the first stroke, but the surgery was expected to be minor.
Still, doctors encouraged the overweight leader—who weighs at least 250 pounds—to go on a diet and take better care of himself.
While preparing for surgery Wednesday evening, Sharon complained of chest pains at his ranch in southern Israel and was rushed by convoy to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, where he was taken into surgery shortly before midnight.
Hospital director Dr. Shlomo Mor-Yosef said Sharon had suffered a "significant stroke" and cerebral hemorrhaging, or bleeding in the brain. Mor-Yosef told reporters early Thursday morning that doctors had worked through the night to drain the excess blood from Sharon's brain. After analyzing the results of more than five hours of surgery, he said, they took him back in for another round of surgery that was expected to last several more hours.
Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the former mayor of Jerusalem, assumed duties as Israel's temporary leader shortly after Sharon was taken to the hospital. Under Israeli law, Olmert will hold the post for 100 days, or at least until the March 28 elections if they're held as scheduled.
Sharon's health sent immediate shockwaves through the region and was certain to alter the political terrain in the Middle East.
Sharon successfully engineered Israel's pullout from the Gaza Strip last summer over the strenuous objections of his ruling Likud Party. After that experience, and riding high on a wave of popularity, Sharon decided to break away from Likud and form a centrist party with more like-minded allies.
Sharon had indicated through his aides that he wanted to be the Israeli leader to define Israel's boundaries by shutting down some Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank—while retaining others—and ceding some power to Palestinians.
Recent polls showed Sharon's Kadima Party catapulting to prominence among voters who shunned the more conservative Likud philosophy.
But Kadima's popularity rests in large part on Sharon's shoulders. No other members of the party carry the same political stature to lead the party to power.
"It raises huge uncertainties, because Sharon's new party, the Kadima party, is really a creature of Sharon," said Philip Wilcox, former U.S. consul general in Jerusalem. "Without Sharon, the party is hollow."
That reality could quickly tip voter support back to more hard-line Likud, which is now headed by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who abruptly resigned as finance minister to protest Sharon's Gaza pullout plan.
Long known as a military hawk who played key and controversial battlefield roles in all of Israel's historic wars, Sharon became prime minister in 2001 with a mandate to ensure Israeli security, which had come under assault in a wave of suicide and other attacks on civilians. He repeatedly sent Israeli troops into Palestinian areas and erected a massive security barrier between Israel and the West Bank.
Yet Sharon had begun in the last two years to shift his philosophy and consider his legacy.
Two years ago, Sharon unveiled his contentious proposal to shut down all Israeli settlements in the occupied Gaza Strip, pull out all 8,000 settlers and end the nation's decades-long military occupation of the 1.3 million Palestinians in the desert territory.
He was expected to abandon more minor Jewish settlements in the West Bank while moving to incorporate formally larger more established settlements—especially in the Jerusalem area—into Israel proper.
The success of the Gaza pullout also provided Sharon with significant international cachet. International leaders heaped praise on Sharon, who delivered a seminal U.N. address soon after the pullout was complete.
But critics said Sharon's latest initiative couldn't overshadow his career as a military hawk and his longstanding role as a champion of the settlement movement that encouraged Israeli citizens to move to the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, despite international condemnation.
Perhaps Sharon's most controversial role was as defense minister during Israel's war in Lebanon, during which its Christian allies launched an attack on two Palestinian refugee camps and massacred hundreds of citizens, including women and children.
An Israeli inquiry concluded that Sharon should be held personally responsible for the massacre and recommended that he be fired as defense minister, a step subsequently taken by then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
A LOOK AT EHUD OLMERT
Ehud Olmert, Israel's deputy prime minister, assumed the duties of prime minister Wednesday evening on a temporary basis. Some facts:
Born: Sept 30, 1945, in Binyamina, Israel
Education: B.A. and LL.B. degrees in psychology, philosophy and law from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Personal: Wife, Aliza, 4 children
_Elected to the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, in 1973. He served as a minister of minority affairs, 1988-1990, and 1990-1992 as minister of health.
_In 1993, elected mayor of Jerusalem, resigning in 2003.
_In 2003, appointed deputy prime minister and the minister of industry and trade. Later, minister of communication.
_In August 2005, appointed minister of finance.
For more information:
Knessett bio: http://www.knesset.gov.il/mk/eng/mk_eng.asp?mk_individual_id_t=3
BBC profile: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/4135680.stm
Sources: Jewish Virtual Library, Knesset Homepage
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Warren P. Strobel contributed to this report from Washington. Bio box on Ehud Olmert was compiled by Tish Wells.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Ariel Sharon
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