JERUSALEM – The mild stroke suffered by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Sunday abruptly raised the question of what would happen to Mideast peace prospects if the 77-year-old leader is incapacitated.
Sharon's transformation in recent times from hawk to pragmatist — becoming the first Israeli leader to relinquish land the Palestinians claim for a future state — has led many Israelis to view him as their best chance for peace.
Just four weeks ago, Sharon set off a political earthquake by leaving the hard-line Likud Party he helped found in the 1970s, setting up a centrist faction called Kadima that captured a quick lead in polls before March 28 general elections.
Kadima is well-positioned to form a coalition with a solid majority in favor of further territorial concessions.
High hopes have been placed on Sharon since his historic about-face from fierce champion of Jewish settlements in the Gaza and West Bank to the man who led Israel's withdrawal from Gaza and part of the West Bank this summer.
Because of his long career as a security and territorial hawk, many see him as ideally positioned to make the painful compromises that could result in drawing Israel's permanent borders.
Now Israel and the Mideast are facing a period without Sharon. Doctors said Sharon would leave the hospital in a few days, but he likely will need some extra time to recuperate. Aides said Sunday that Sharon was lucid and still running the government.
Though Sharon made history with his Gaza pullout, most Palestinians continue to see him as a dangerous enemy because of his history of leading military operations against them, refusing to believe he would really grant them a state one day.
While Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas telephoned Sharon's office to wish him well, dozens of armed militants celebrated Sharon's illness in Gaza, firing weapons in the air and handing out pastries to passing motorists.
Speculation about a post-Sharon Israel is not new, since the ex-general is grossly overweight and turns 78 in February. But his incapacitation three months before general elections could have far-reaching effects.
He has run his new party single-handedly, and Kadima is, in many ways, synonymous with Sharon himself. The prime minister attracted more than a dozen Likud lawmakers to his side, then added Labor Party stalwart and peace pioneer Shimon Peres and hawkish Likud Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz.
That mix of egos and clashing ideologies is essentially held together by one factor — the imposing presence of Sharon.
Opponents could take advantage of Sharon's absence to cut into his party's wide margin in the polls.
Likud, which was badly damaged by Sharon's departure, chooses his successor Monday. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and current Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom are the front-runners.
If Sharon is sidelined, a seasoned campaigner like Netanyahu could use that to his advantage to turn Likud's fortunes around.
Mideast peace efforts would, in any event, be stalled until after a new Israeli government is formed, and the shape of the government could determine the fate of negotiations.
If Sharon's absence diminishes his party's standing — and Likud and other hard-line parties gain strength — the same political stalemate that has plagued Israel could return, undermining peace efforts.