Vol. 5 Num 574 Fri. January 06, 2006  

World fears ME turmoil if Israel loses Sharon

World leaders sent wishes of recovery to critically ill Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday, while foes and Arab and Israeli media raised the prospect of a profoundly changed Middle East if he dies.

Anxiety over the future direction of Israel and the conflict with the Palestinians was palpable, following 77-year-old Sharon's urgent hospitalisation Wednesday after suffering a massive stroke.

Arab media were alarmed.

While Palestinian newspapers Al-Quds and Al-Ayyam reported Sharon to be close to death, Lebanon's As-Safir newspaper wrote that "Israel is on the brink of political strife."

Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qorei said in a letter sent to Israel's acting premier Ehud Olmert that "Our thoughts and prayers are with Prime Minister Sharon, the Israeli government and people. We wish the prime minister a full and quick recovery."

Some Israeli newspapers saw the end of Sharon's rule, whether he survived or not.

"One can cautiously say that it appears that the era in which Sharon stood at Israel's helm came to a tragic end on Wednesday," wrote a columnist for the Haaretz newspaper, Aluf Benn.

Sharon's fiercest enemy, the Palestinian militant group Hamas, gloated over the news.

The Middle East, its spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told AFP, "will be a better place without Sharon. The world is on the verge of being rid of one of its worst leaders."

He added: "Sharon's fate is divine intervention reserved for despots and evil-doers."

Leaders everywhere else, though, expressed their concern, with those from countries sponsoring the fragile Israeli-Palestinian peace process especially quick to say they hoped Sharon would recover.

US President George W. Bush issued a statement late Wednesday saying he and wife Laura shared "the concerns of the Israeli people about Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's health" and were praying for him.

"Prime Minister Sharon is a man of courage and peace," Bush said.

French President Jacques Chirac -- who himself suffered what was believed to have been a minor stroke last September -- said Thursday that "all my wishes and all my thoughts" were with Sharon.

He said wanted to see continued "the courageous initiatives started by Mr Sharon that have already won approval from the entire international community."

In Moscow, the Kremlin said "President Putin, via Russia's ambassador in Israel, expressed his sincere sympathies to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and wished him the speediest recovery."

Britain's Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said on a visit to Beirut that "I don't want to speculate about the consequences" of Sharon's invalidity and possible death.

"Sharon is very ill and remains the prime minister. We hope and pray that he recovers... We hope and pray for that miracle."

Other messages flowed in from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has been unremittingly hostile to Israel, made no direct mention of Sharon's medical emergency but did launch a verbal attack on Western support of his rule.

"Be sure that not only the Palestinian people, but also all Islamic nations will not even for a moment tolerate this occupying regime and corrupt government empowered by you," he told Western nations.


Palestinian shopkeepers watch the news about Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's grave state of health yesterday in the West Bank town of Hebron. Sharon is to remain in a deep coma for the next 24 hours after he underwent surgery for a massive brain haemorrhage, a hospital spokesman said. PHOTO: AFP