WASHINGTON – Praising stricken Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as "a man of enormous courage," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said even without his leadership, the desire for peace remains strong among Israelis.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, Rice called Sharon "a wonderful, historic leader" whose support for a settlement with the Palestinians has registered around the world.
Rice said a desire for peace as well as security is now strong among the Israeli people, partly due to Sharon's leadership, and will sustain future efforts to reach an accommodation.
Sharon remained hospitalized in Jerusalem with a life-threatening stroke and was considered unlikely to return to power. The prime minister's official powers have been transferred to Sharon's deputy, Ehud Olmert.
As for the Palestinians, who are divided on whether to proceed with elections later this month, Rice said it was vital to go ahead.
In building a stable society, "elections have to be held when they are expected to be held" Rice said at a breakfast with State Department correspondents.
Rice stressed that Sharon recognized Israel's security was entwined with a secure and peaceful future for the Palestinian people.
Sharon's sudden illness were a jarring setback to hopes for Mideast peace.
President Bush, who worked closely with Sharon, said in a statement Wednesday that he and his wife, Laura, were praying for Sharon's recovery.
Bush saluted Sharon as a man of courage and peace, and sent his best wishes.
On Capitol Hill, Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., said he was distraught. "He has always been steadfast in fighting for Israel's security, but it is his vision for making peace with the Palestinians and achieving a two-state solution that has driven him in recent years," Biden said in a statement.
The White House would not comment on how Sharon's condition might affect the Middle East peace process or about the transition of power in the Israeli government. Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said the focus should remain on Sharon's health.
Bush spoke Thursday morning with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and both expressed concern about Sharon's health, McClellan said.
While Bush has never visited Israel as president, he forged close ties with the Israeli leader and received him several times at the White House as well as once at his ranch in Texas.
All the while, Bush kept his distance from Yasser Arafat, sharing Sharon's distrust for the late Palestinian leader.
Bush looked to Sharon for help in fulfilling a presidential vision of a Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace with Israel.
Sharon, for his part, counted heavily on Bush to compel the Palestinian leadership to uproot terror groups.
While neither goal has been met, Sharon's decision to withdraw all Jewish settlers and troops from Gaza gave the Palestinians a stake in pursuing peace with Israel.
Even before Sharon was hospitalized, prospects for an accord with the Palestinians were dim. The Palestinians were divided over whether to delay elections. And U.S. and Israeli calls for confronting violent groups were largely unheeded.
Edward S. Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, said with Sharon out of the Israeli leadership, peace would be on hold for the indefinite future.
Edward Abington, a former American diplomat who advises the Palestinian Authority, said there already was chaos on the Palestinian side over elections before Sharon was stricken with health problems.
"There has been a question whether the elections should be postponed," he said in an interview.
Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, called Sharon "the engine of a new way to think about peace and security."
Without him, "then progress will be difficult to achieve," Satloff said in a separate interview.
Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said Sharon's absence "raises a big question mark over the future of the Israel and therefore the future of the peace process."
Reached by telephone in Australia, Indyk said the situation with Sharon was causing "a great deal of instability in the political process in Israel."
Sharon's decision to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza, initially viewed skeptically by administration officials, galvanized the dormant process, and gave the administration, Israel and the Palestinians something to work with in the quest for a two-state agreement.
Sharon also broke away from hard-line Likud party members to center himself along the Israeli political spectrum and make accommodation with the Palestinians more likely.
But the Palestinians split over what to do about the militant group Hamas, while Sharon cast about for creating a new Israeli political bloc.
"Sharon has been the single post powerful force for change," Satloff said.