JERUSALEM, Israel (AP) — Doctors expect Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to recover fully from a mild stroke and leave the hospital Tuesday, but his illness raised questions about his long-term health and ability to lead Israel if he wins a third term next year.
As the 77-year-old Sharon recovered, members of the hardline Likud Party, which he quit last month to form the centrist Kadima Party, picked ex-premier Benjamin Netanyahu to run for prime minister in the March 28 elections.
Polls from all three Israeli TV stations showed Netanyahu with 47 percent of the vote — 15 percentage points more than his closest rival, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. Shalom conceded defeat, and party officials did not wait for the official count to declare Netanyahu the winner.
Netanyahu pledged Monday to lead the party back to the top. “First of all we must bring the Likud back to itself and then to the leadership of the country. It begins now, up, up and up,” he said.
Kadima holds a commanding lead in the polls, but the party is built around Sharon — Israel’s oldest prime minister — and his health is likely to become a major campaign issue.
Sharon, who is extremely overweight, was rushed to Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem on Sunday evening after showing signs of confused speech, doctors said.
Doctors said he suffered a minor stroke when a small blood clot, which quickly broke up, briefly blocked a blood vessel feeding his brain.
He never lost consciousness or suffered paralysis, and the stroke only temporarily affected his speech, not his memory or cognitive abilities, they said. Sharon was being treated with blood thinners.
“I can say confidently that the stroke will leave no damage or residual effects,” said his neurologist, Dr. Tamir Ben-Hur. “I would say chances are excellent that he won’t have another one.”
Ben-Hur said Sharon, who held his daily staff meeting in the hospital Monday, was competent to carry out his duties as prime minister. But Sharon aide Raanan Gissin said it would take some time for him to resume his full schedule.
“Everyone who undergoes this kind of event, it does something to him in terms of perceptions, in terms of the need to hold back and take it easy for a while,” Gissin told The Associated Press.
Sharon was being kept in the hospital until Tuesday to ensure he rested, Ben-Hur said.
The director of Sharon’s office, Ilan Cohen, said the prime minister would return to his Jerusalem residence and get a few days of rest before returning to a full work schedule.
Sharon was at risk for stroke because of his age and obesity. He has never released his medical records, and a right-wing lawmaker and physician, Arieh Eldad, demanded that he do so now.
The doctors insisted that Sharon immediately start a diet, though his aides, who refused to disclose his weight, suggested that might be a difficult edict to enforce.
“He is a very opinionated man. He will make that decision on his own, just like he makes all other decisions,” Cohen said.
Sharon received calls from President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas also sent wishes for a speedy recovery.
Kadima officials insisted Sharon’s illness wouldn’t damage the party.
“The prime minister’s leadership is the cornerstone of Kadima, and will continue to be,” Justice Minister Tzipi Livni told Army Radio. But she said there is a “worthy coterie” of other leaders as well.
Hanan Crystal, a political analyst, said the toughest candidate against Sharon would likely be Netanyahu, who served as prime minister from 1996-1999 and is an experienced campaigner and polished public speaker.
“Netanyahu has already defeated a sitting prime minister (Peres in 1996), and he can do it again,” Crystal told Israel Radio.
“We need to present an alternative to Sharon’s policy of unilateral withdrawals that have brought Qassam (rockets) to Ashkelon,” said Gideon Saar, a Likud faction chief, referring to rockets fired by militants in Gaza that exploded not far from the Israeli city.
Sharon did not speak to the media Monday, but Israeli newspapers said he called their reporters late Sunday to assure them he was fine.
Palestinian reaction was mixed, with some celebrating his illness and others hoping for his recovery.
Sharon is widely reviled for his connection to a 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon by an Israeli-allied militia, and distrusted because of Israel’s tough policies against Palestinian militants during the past five years of fighting.
But he also pulled Israel out of the Gaza Strip this summer, and many Palestinians believe he is the only politician who can lead Israel to make peace.
“Sharon started it, and if he doesn’t finish, it will take a long time before a strong Israeli leader will come and make peace,” said Naim Zarloul, a clothing store clerk in the Balata refugee camp in the northern West Bank.
But Abu Aziz, a leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades militant group in Balata, said he was “ready to throw a party and fire in the air” if Sharon dies.