JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a mild stroke Sunday, but his condition quickly improved and his doctor said he was expected to be released from the hospital after a few days. Sharon aides said he was lucid and in control of the government.
Sharon never lost consciousness, said Yuval Weiss, deputy director of Jerusalem's Hadassah Hospital. The premier was expected to be released after undergoing tests.
"Initial checks showed he had a light stroke and during checks his condition improved. He was always conscious and didn't need any surgical intervention," Weiss said.
Sharon's personal physician, Bolek Goldman, said the prime minister, who is 77 and extremely overweight, would be hospitalized "for a few days," although Weiss said Sharon would be discharged "shortly."
Sharon was treated with blood thinners and had no problems with his motor skills, Goldman said.
"Unequivocally there is no damage," he said. "He had anticoagulant treatment. He will need to be in the hospital for a few days."
Sharon was joking with his family and received a briefing from his military adviser, Goldman said.
On the streets of Gaza City, some masked Palestinians from the Popular Resistance Committees militant group fired into the air and handed out pastries to passing motorists in apparent celebration of the Israeli leader's ill health. Some made "V" for victory signs with their hands.
But aides to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas called Sharon's office to wish him a speedy recovery.
The stroke was almost certain to make Sharon's health a major campaign issue before March elections, but it would have little effect on Israeli policy or peace efforts since no major decisions were expected during the campaign.
"He's lucid, he's fully functional," Sharon aide Raanan Gissin said.
Another hospital official, Shmuel Shapira, said Sharon was in stable condition. Sharon's sons, Omri and Gilad, were at the hospital.
The prime minister has been a fixture of Israeli politics for more than three decades. Last month, he broke away from his hard-line Likud Party and formed the centrist Kadima faction to contest March 28 parliamentary elections.
Kadima, which has a commanding lead in the polls, is built around Sharon. If Sharon is incapacitated, Vice Premier Ehud Olmert would take over the day-to-day running of the government.
But Cabinet Secretary Yisrael Maimon said that would not be necessary.
"Because the prime minister is functioning and communicating and talking, there is no relevance to the question of who will act in his place," he told reporters. "He himself asked to be released tonight to go home, and the doctors suggested he stay under observation."
Sharon grew weak and confused Sunday evening soon after a meeting former Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Sharon was immediately rushed to the hospital in his official vehicle, all nearby roads were closed and he was brought directly to the emergency room, media reports said.
Sharon's health and age have always lurked in the background of his term as prime minister. The ex-army general has never released his medical records but has insisted in recent years he is not suffering from any serious ailments.
Goldman said the premier had no serious health problems in the past aside from his weight, which he had been struggling with for decades. He is regularly checked once a year, Goldman said.
"There was no indication that this was going to happen," he said.
Sharon was elected prime minister in 2001, months after the beginning of nearly five years of Israel-Palestinian violence. Sharon led the Israeli crackdown on the Palestinian uprising and was vilified by many Palestinians.
However, he also led Israel's pullout from the Gaza Strip last summer after 38 years of occupation. After that, he threw the Israeli political map in disarray as he prepared to run for a third term in office in March 28 elections.
Sharon split from the Likud Party, which he helped found three decades ago, saying it had become too extreme. A group of hard-line Likud lawmakers bitterly fought against Sharon's Gaza withdrawal plan. They lost the battle, but Sharon determined that he could no longer lead the party.
Polls show that Sharon's new party — which included more than a dozen former Likud lawmakers — would finish far ahead of other parties, all but guaranteeing he would form the next government and remain prime minister for another term.
Sharon has been one of the most charismatic and controversial figures in Israel during a public career that has spanned more than half a century.
He fought in most of Israel's wars, gaining a reputation as a military genius known for daring tactics and sometimes disobeying orders. But his reputation as an Israeli war hero was tarnished by a massacre of Palestinian refugees in the early 1980s.
As defense minister, he engineered the country's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The invasion was portrayed as a quick, limited strike to drive Palestinian fighters from Israel's northern border. But the conflict quickly escalated, and Israel remained in Lebanon for the next 18 years.
In September 1982, Israeli troops were stationed next to two Palestinian refugee camps when the Phalange, an allied Christian militia group, entered and systematically slaughtered hundreds of people.
An Israeli commission rejected Sharon's contention that he knew nothing about the massacre and found him indirectly responsible, costing him his job as defense minister.
He rejected the commission's finding and stayed in the government as a minister without portfolio, pledging to remain in public life. Sharon gradually rehabilitated himself, serving in parliament and holding a variety of Cabinet posts through the 1980s and 1990s.
He became known as "the bulldozer," never shy of confrontation, a man who could get things done, but who showed little regard for the opinions of his critics.