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Sharon's stroke endangers his political agenda

JERUSALEM—While Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon battled for his life Thursday after a devastating stroke, his political allies began working to keep the popular leader's centrist agenda alive.

Almost single-handedly, Sharon redrew the political boundaries in the Middle East last year by pulling all Israelis out of the occupied Gaza Strip. But he wasn't content to stop there. He also broke away from his right-leaning Likud Party to launch a new political group intent on taking dramatic risks to define Israel's disputed borders.

Now his less charismatic and persuasive allies must convince skeptical voters that they can carry on his work in a post-Sharon era.

"It's a shock to the system," said political analyst Oren Yiftachel, from Ben Gurion University of the Negev.

After more than seven hours of surgery to drain blood that had accumulated in his brain, Sharon was kept in a medically induced coma Thursday to aid his recovery. Shlomo Mor-Yosef, the director of Hadassah Hospital, where Sharon is being treated, said he was in stable condition and that doctors would wait another day or two before resuscitating him and trying to assess the damage the stroke had caused.

The stroke came just hours before Sharon was scheduled to undergo minor surgery to repair a small hole that had been discovered in his heart after he had a mild stroke last month.

Sharon, who's 77, had appeared unscathed by the first scare and had returned to work preparing for the March 28 election, in which polls showed his new Kadima party leading the pack.

In many ways, Kadima was a cult of personality, a political group built around and for Sharon.

"When I thought of Kadima, I thought of Ariel Sharon," said parliament member Fouad Ben-Eliezer of the left-leaning Labor Party. "I don't see Kadima without Ariel Sharon."

The challenge for the less-well-known Kadima members, including acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, is to persuade voters to stick with the agenda even if they lose their unifying figure.

"Even if Ariel Sharon is currently fighting for his life," Kadima member Ronnie Bar-On told Israel Radio, "Kadima as I understand it is alive and needs to stay alive for the message we are bringing to the people of Israel."

With Sharon at the helm, Kadima still faced the prospect of building a coalition with the Labor Party and its new leader, Amir Peretz, to secure a 61-vote majority. But an instant poll released Thursday by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz showed Kadima still winning about 40 seats with Olmert, former Likud minister Tzipi Livni or former Prime Minister Shimon Peres leading the party, an early indication that support for the party might outlast Sharon. Still, even Kadima members said privately that they expected support to slip.

In the short term, Kadima could lose some support to the revamped Likud Party and its conservative leader, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

While Kadima was formulating its philosophy, Sharon's allies already had begun preparing Israel for another dramatic peace gambit. Earlier this week, the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv reported that Sharon would try to define Israel's eastern border in negotiations not with the Palestinians but with the Bush administration.

Sharon was prepared to force thousands of Israeli settlers in the West Bank to move in exchange for assurances from the United States that he could hold on to larger settlement blocs around Jerusalem and on the western side of the country's disputed separation barrier, the newspaper reported.

In the wake of Sharon's stroke, said Reuven Hazan, a Hebrew University political science professor, any prospects of pushing through that kind of disengagement plan are gone.

"If you were holding your breath for something on the West Bank in the next year or two, whether it was a partial withdrawal or serious negotiations with the Palestinians, all of that is finished," Hazan said. "Even if Kadima keeps its act together, only Sharon was capable of keeping the disengagement juggernaut moving."

Even if the prospects for immediate West Bank withdrawals have dimmed, it's easy to underestimate the power of the precedents that Sharon set.

Until Israeli police moved in to oust thousands of Jewish settlers forcibly in the Gaza Strip last summer, many settlers refused to believe that the man who'd been an ideological father of the settlement movement would kick them out.

But he did, and in the process won widespread Israeli support for the plan and changed the political calculus in the region.

"Sharon's move reflected not only a change in Ariel Sharon, but a change in Israeli politics," said Gershom Baskin, the author of "The Accidental Empire," a forthcoming book on the Israeli settlement movement. "It reflected that change, it cemented that change and it will continue to affect Israeli politics once Sharon has left the stage."

While Israelis followed the news of Sharon's deteriorating health with concern, Palestinian leaders watched with dismay.

Veteran Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said he was worried that Israel would use the turmoil to crack down on Palestinians and block Palestinian voters in East Jerusalem from casting ballots in Palestinian legislative elections slated for Jan. 25.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has warned that he might postpone the elections if the East Jerusalem issue isn't resolved. So far, Israeli leaders, worried about Islamic militants with Hamas winning a large number of seats in the contest, haven't decided whether to allow voting in East Jerusalem.

"Postponing the Palestinian elections will not solve the problems," Erekat said. "It will just add to the chaos, will add to the lawlessness."

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(Michael Matza of The Philadelphia Inquirer in Jerusalem and Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Cliff Churgin in Jerusalem and Mohammad Najib in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MIDEAST-SHARON

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060105 SHARON life, 20060105 Olmert bio, 20060104 Sharon bio, 20060104 Stroke bleeding

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