JERUSALEM – With Ariel Sharon's condition gradually improving, doctors hoped Wednesday to completely remove him from sedatives soon — a process that could take a day and a half — so they can assess what brain damage he suffered from a massive stroke.
New polls indicated Sharon's Kadima Party would easily win March 28 elections and had even gained strength since the popular prime minister fell ill a week ago. With Sharon in critical but stable condition, the fight to choose his successor began in earnest.
Kadima officials floated the idea of giving Sharon the top slot on the party's election list, while keeping acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as its candidate for premier. The unlikely proposal was strongly debated by Israeli politicians Wednesday in a sign that the country's vibrant political life was reviving after grinding to a halt because of Sharon's stroke.
Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu ordered his party's Cabinet ministers to resign from the government Thursday, a long-planned move that he put off after Sharon's stroke, Israeli media reported.
Israel Radio reported that some or all of the ministers planned to ignore the order, which would require them to step down on the same day as Likud primaries to choose candidates for the parliamentary elections.
Sharon's doctors said his condition had improved slightly and they were trying to wean him off the sedatives that kept him in an induced coma, though he remained on a low dose of sedatives Wednesday afternoon. Sharon, 77, has been unconscious for a week, since suffering a massive stroke Jan. 4.
Dr. Yoram Weiss, one of the prime minister's doctors, told Israel's Channel 2 TV that after the sedatives are stopped it would take several days to determine the extent of brain damage Sharon sustained.
"We're talking about a long, slow and drawn-out process and we hope that it will always develop positively. It's very hard to say what the pace will be," he said.
Israel Radio said it would take 36 hours for the drugs to exit Sharon's system. But hospital spokesman Ron Krumer said it was impossible to give a precise timetable. As of 11 p.m. Wednesday, Sharon had been unconscious for a week — 168 hours.
As the sedatives are stopped, doctors will be watching Sharon. One of his neurosurgeons, Jose Cohen, said most patients open their eyes within three weeks after sedation and the sooner this happens the better. However, Sharon was certain to have sustained some cognitive damage, he said.
"There will be changes, there's nothing you can do about that. There will be changes, but what changes, nobody knows," Cohen told Israel TV.
Since doctors began decreasing the sedatives Monday, Sharon started breathing on his own and moved his right arm and leg and his left arm in response to pain stimulation, responses Cohen described as "quite good." Movement on Sharon's left side could be significant because it is controlled by the right side of the brain, where his stroke occurred.
"We expected a serious weakening on the left side of the body, but we were surprised to see him move his left side. That means that maybe the damage on the right side of the brain is not quite as bad as we thought at first," Cohen said.
Sharon's doctors said Tuesday that he was out of immediate danger, but Cohen cautioned against premature optimism.
"The prime minister's life is still in danger. He suffered a serious stroke, period," he said. "Until we have passed a few more stages, we are still very cautious, We know that although every day we are getting further out of danger, we are still in danger."
As Sharon's condition becomes clearer, doctors will decide whether he can return to his post or if the Cabinet must choose a replacement.
Olmert has worked to project an air of stability, holding Cabinet meetings and assuring the country the government was functioning. He spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Wednesday and gave him an update on Sharon's condition.
Previously, Olmert had been seen as an unlikely candidate for prime minister, but his calm stewardship this week has turned him into the clear front-runner in the election.
A poll for Channel 10 TV and the Haaretz daily projected an Olmert-headed Kadima would win 44 of 120 parliament seats, virtually assuring it would lead the next government. The poll showed Labor taking 16 seats and Likud winning 13. Pollsters questioned 640 voters but did not give a margin of error.
Kadima politicians cautioned against reading too much into the poll. "We know about the limitations of these polls," lawmaker Haim Ramon told Israel TV. "This just says that it depends on what we do. This week we acted well."
Sharon left Likud late last year after many of its lawmakers tried to torpedo his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. Though many experienced politicians joined Kadima, it was largely seen as a one-man show. Sharon had not drawn up the party's election list when he suffered his stroke.
On Wednesday, some Kadima officials discussed running Sharon symbolically in the top position on the list, but making Olmert their candidate for prime minister.
"Let's say that (Sharon) has serious physical limitations, but in all other capacities he functions. There is no one better than him for the first place," Ramon said.
Tourism Minister Abraham Hirchson, also of Kadima, said the party should wait before making a decision.
Opposition politicians criticized the idea of a ticket headed by Sharon.
"I don't think that at the moment Sharon should be seen as some kind of electoral asset to be used by Kadima or anyone else," Likud lawmaker Yuval Steinitz told Israel TV, dismissing the idea as "inappropriate."
Other politicians appeared to accept that Olmert would become party leader.
"I'm waiting for Ehud Olmert to come out and say what exactly the Sharon tradition means to him," Labor lawmaker Yuli Tamir said. "Then we can have a proper political debate."