Ariel Sharon, Israel's Prime Minister, was in critical condition in a Jerusalem hospital last night after a four-hour emergency intestinal operation, but doctors said his life was no longer in immediate danger.
A surgical team, led by Professor Avi Rivkind, removed 20 inches from his bowel after a CT scan yesterday morning revealed serious damage to his digestive tract. At that stage his life was said to be in danger.
After the operation, Mr Sharon, who had been in neurological intensive care since suffering a devastating stroke on 4 January, was moved to the general intensive care unit. It was the seventh operation in five weeks for the Prime Minister, who is two weeks short of his 78th birthday.
Professor Shlomo Mor-Yosef, director of Hadassah hospital, emphasised that the main problem was still Mr Sharon's failure to regain consciousness. He described yesterday's operation as routine, but conceded that it wouldn't help him to recover from the stroke.
"It has no direct effect," he said, "but indirectly it's not a good sign... his main problem is his recovery from the stroke." There had been no new thrombosis, and the rest of his vital signs, including blood pressure and pulse, were normal.
Mr Sharon's sons, Omri and Gilad, stayed at his bedside last night, but most of the friends and associates who had rushed to the hospital went home. Lior Horev, one of his aides, said: "We began the morning in a very gloomy mood. It looked like a matter of hours. When he came out of surgery, there was a great sense of relief. We were a lot more optimistic."
Professor Mor-Yosef dismissed rumours that when he was admitted Mr Sharon had asked the doctors to do everything possible to prolong his life. The hospital director said all decisions "were taken together with his sons on a daily basis".
Anxious Israelis followed the dramatic developments on radio and television, but their mood was one of resignation. Some suggested it was time to let Mr Sharon go. They had long ago discounted any possibility that he would return to active public life. The only questions were whether he would wake up from his coma and what kind of life he might be able to lead if he did. After five weeks, the signs were discouraging. Last week, Ha'aretz newspaper defined his state as "vegetative".
The political community has already come to terms with his departure. Ehud Olmert, one of his closest allies in last year's battle to pull out of Gaza, has quickly established himself as acting Prime Minister. Six weeks before a general election, Kadima, the party Mr Sharon launched after leaving Likud, maintains a commanding lead in the opinion polls.
To the surprise of the pundits, neither Likud, now led by Binyamin Netanyahu, nor Labour under Amir Peretz has made significant inroads. A survey at the weekend in Yediot Ahronot newspaper found that 50 per cent of Israelis judged Mr Olmert trustworthy, compared with 47 per cent for Mr Peretz and only 31 per cent for Mr Netanyahu.
Kadima is campaigning on the "Sharon legacy", and the voters seem content with that. Like his old boss, Mr Olmert goes through the motions of supporting the international road map for peace with the Palestinians. But after Hamas's landslide victory in last month's parliamentary elections, the acting Prime Minister is hinting more and more at Mr Sharon's alternative strategy of deciding where Israel's eastern border should be drawn, then pulling back to it unilaterally.Reuse content