Israel waits as doctors prepare to wake Sharon from coma

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The Independent Online

Five days, and three operations, after Ariel Sharon suffered a severe brain haemorrhage, the Israeli Prime Minister's doctors plan to wake him today from his medically induced coma, provided his condition remains stable.

Only then will the team at Jerusalem's Hadassah hospital be able to assess how severe the damage has been. Will the 77-year-old leader be paralysed? Will he will be able to speak? Will he understand what's happening around him?

In a statement that seemed to owe more to tact than conviction, Ehud Olmert, the acting Prime Minister, told his cabinet colleagues yesterday: "We are hoping and wishing that the Prime Minister will recover, strengthen and return to leading the state of Israel."

Neurologists said that Mr Sharon's chances of some sort of recovery had improved, but they all-but discounted him ever returning to his desk.

Dr Jose Cohen, a senior member of the Hadassah surgical team, said his chances of survival were high, but that his ability to think and reason would be impaired. "He will not continue to be Prime Minister, but maybe he will be able to understand and to speak. To say that after a severe blow like this there will not be cognitive problems is just not acknowledging reality."

Briefing reporters after another CT scan yesterday, Dr Shlomo Mor-Yosef, the hospital director, said Mr Sharon showed a "slight improvement", but that he remained in critical condition. The brain swelling had gone down, intra-cranial and blood pressure were within normal range and the cerebrospinal fluid was now draining well, after the operation on Friday. There was no fever. "In light of all these factors," Dr Mor-Yosef said, "the panel of experts decided to start the process of taking him out of the sedation tomorrow morning. This all depends, of course, on whether the Prime Minister makes it until then without any significant incidents."

Mr Olmert, who has taken the helm with the smooth discretion of a successful lawyer and skilled political operator, signalled a message of business as usual. "We will continue to do what Arik would want, running affairs as they should be run," he told the cabinet. Three months before a general election, no one wants to be accused of exploiting the crisis for partisan purposes. Campaigning is on hold.

Leaders of the three main parties, Mr Sharon's Kadima, Labour and Likud, assured Mr Olmert of their solidarity. But beneath the surface, dispositions are being made. Likud and Labour are targeting the centre, hoping to woo back voters who defected to Kadima because they trusted Mr Sharon. The test for Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud leader, will be primary elections for parliamentary candidates, due on Thursday. He hopes to shed the image of a far-right party that fought the popular Gaza disengagement tooth and nail.

Zalman Shoval, a former Sharon adviser running for a Likud Knesset seat, said: "Netanyahu definitely wants to adhere to a more centrist position. But if we emerge with a list which has a fair number of the sort of people who caused Sharon to leave, things will be difficult."

Mr Olmert and Amir Peretz, the Labour leader, are assiduously courting Shimon Peres, the 82-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner, who always fares better in the polls than at the ballot box. Both believe Mr Peres, who pledged support for Mr Sharon after leaving Labour but never formally joined Kadima, would win them votes. But the elder statesman endorsed Mr Olmert's leadership yesterday, without quite closing all his options.

* Palestinian security forces and protesters, including former Israeli-held prisoners, demanding government jobs exchanged gunfire at the weekend, leaving one demonstrator dead in Gaza City. Mahmoud Abbas, the President, said the unrest was harming statehood aspirations and economic development.