Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, was said to be "in a serious and stable" condition after emerging from a third bout of emergency surgery amid fears that he could have suffered irreversible brain damage.
The director of Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem said after the operation last night that a CT scan showed that Mr Sharon, 77, who had a serious brain haemorrhage on Wednesday night, was no longer experiencing bleeding in the brain. He added that "intracranial pressure" had returned to normal.
Professor Shlomo Mor-Yosef, said: "I can say that in comparison to his previous CT scans, there has been a substantial improvement in the way the brain looks to Hadassah neurology experts."
Mr Sharon had been rushed to the operating theatre after a CT scan yesterday morning revealed an increase in cranial pressure. The scan had also showed some bleeding in his brain, a slight expansion of one of the brain lobes and a rise in blood pressure, Professor Mor-Yosef explained.
Earlier, the unconscious and heavily sedated Mr Sharon had had a stable night. The hospital's deputy director, Dr Shmuel Shapira, said: "The logical scenario is that we won't even try to wake him up before Sunday ... The goal of the sedation is to lower the oxygen needs of the brain and to allow the brain ... to rest. So certainly until Sunday, and it's possible beyond that, he will be sedated."
But although yesterday's operation was apparently successful in draining excess fluid, pessimism was expressed amid a wealth of medical commentary outside the Hadassah.
Dr Avi Cohen, director of the neurovascular unit at Soroka Medical Center in Be'er Sheva, said the prognosis was poor: "It certainly does not forecast good things regarding [Sharon's] ... ability to recover."
But Professor Mor-Yosef had earlier said that predictions for the future were almost impossible to make: "We can't know what the results of the surgery will be, whether it will have influenced his motor skills or his ability to think. Only after he comes out of the induced coma will we be able to make an assessment."
An anonymous senior doctor not involved in Mr Sharon's care also criticised the prescription of blood-thinning medication after the first stroke more than three weeks ago. He said this may have contributed to the later haemorrhage.
The consultant was also reportedly critical of the decision to allow Mr Sharon to stay at his remote ranch in the Negev desert while waiting for what was to have been a routine operation to close a small hole in his heart on Thursday at the Hadassah. Mr Sharon was taken to the Jerusalem hospital on Wednesday after complaining of pain and was afflicted by his stroke five minutes before arriving.
And, in a tacit admission that he sees no chance of Mr Sharon returning to office, Ehud Olmert, the acting Prime Minister and a favourite to lead Mr Sharon's Kadima party, met Shimon Peres, who left Labour to join the new party. The two pledged to continue Mr Sharon's policies, including, Mr Peres said, "an unhesitating war on terror, and an unending effort in the direction of the peace process."
The purpose appeared to have been for Mr Olmert to try to persuade Mr Peres not to desert Kadima and return to Labour. Earlier, an associate of Mr Peres had indicated that the octogenarian former prime minister had not yet decided whether to stay in the centre party, which he joined in response to a personal overture from Mr Sharon.
Mr Peres said enigmatically that he saw similarities between himself and Mr Olmert. He added: "I got the impression that neither Ehud nor I have given up on the hope, the vision and the possibilities - without getting stuck in delusions."
As the principal figures in Kadima appeared to coalesce around Mr Olmert yesterday, another potential leader, Tzipi Livni, the Justice Minister, was reported to have promised not to challenge Mr Olmert for the top job in the party should Mr Sharon be unable to return.
While the Likud party, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, also put out feelers to start bringing back former prominent members who deserted the party for Kadima, one of Mr Netanyahu's prime targets, Tzachi Hanegbi, said such urgings were pointless. "There is no way back - certainly not at this time," he said. The formulation appeared to cover himself against the possibility that Kadima might implode without Mr Sharon.
That possibility appeared more remote yesterday after a Ha'aretz-Channel 10 poll showed that Kadima would win 40 seats under Mr Olmert - a drop of only two seats from the last poll on the party under Mr Sharon. Analysts said the results should be treated with great caution on the ground that they almost certainly reflected a strong sympathy vote for Mr Sharon. But it will still help Mr Olmert to hold the party together in the crucial coming days.
View on the street
Ascher Biton, sweet stallholder, 32:
"He's a great leader - he wasn't always but he became one with the years, a leader people could trust. He did a lot for the country, more than other prime ministers did.He took care of not just one family but of the whole country. What specific things did he do? Getting out of Gaza. But he made many good decisions, economic ones, too. He was always thinking of us. Bibi [Netanyahu] was prime minister, though he didn't do what Sharon did. [Ehud] Olmert and [Amir ] Peretz don't have the experience. I would probably support Bibi."
Aviv Ben David, spice stallholder, 46:
"He took care of the suicide bombings and that means a lot to me because my brother and sister-in-law were killed in a bombing three years ago. It was a very, very difficult decision to get out of part of Israel [Gaza]. But at a certain point you realise you have to compromise for peace. What next? It's what you hear in the street. Everyone wants Sharon. If it has to be someone else I want someone from the right so Bibi's a possibility. But [Shimon] Peres has been moving to the right and if it was between them I would prefer Peres."
Leali Lyman, student, 25:
"He changed his political path in recent years. I'm really sad we lost him but that was a lot of bad energy directed at him from people like settlers on the right so I am not all that surprised. He did a good job really and that's it. I did actually vote for him and I have no idea who I would vote for now. I would like to vote for Sharon's party, Kadima, but it depends who is the leader. Olmert? No there are rumours he's corrupt. Bibi? No way. He's an actor. He's charismatic but that's all. I might vote for Peretz. My dad says he's a good man."
Yael Beardo,human rights lawyer, 29:
"There is this vision now of Sharon as the man of disengagement from Gaza but disengagement isn't peace. It was a unilateral withdrawal from a very small part of the occupied territories while continuing to build colonies in the West Bank. We forget this great guy was actually a bit totalitarian.He supported financial and economic policies of Netanyahu which were to the right of the Washington consensus. People are talking as if he is another Rabin, but he isn't. Rabin signed a bilateral agreement that took account of Palestinian concerns."
David Bonay, sausage stallholder, 46, whose stand was blown up by a Palestinian militant in 1997:
"I am very, very sad, because he's a hero. I agreed with him when he was on the right and I agree with him now he's in the middle. Did I follow him or he follow public opinion? We saw the situation together. I know Ehud Olmert and I like him personally but not as a politician. Bibi? Not at all. I don't believe him. Actually I don't know whether I would vote for Olmert but I wouldn't vote for Bibi."
Interviews by Donald Macintyre