The Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, was taken to hospital in Jerusalem last night after suffering what was believed to be a minor stroke while in his office. His condition, described as stable by a senior doctor, plunged Israeli politics into uncertainty.
Mr Sharon, 77, was unconscious on arrival at Hadassah University Hospital, but he soon came round and was undergoing tests in the trauma unit, a spokesman said. He added that his life was not in danger.
Israel's Channel 2 television reported that Mr Sharon was in a confused state when he arrived and had been taken for a brain scan. He is expected to remain inside for several days.If Mr Sharon were incapacitated, vice-premier Ehud Olmert, a close ally, would take over the day-to-day running of the government. But the 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 said.
He was driven to the hospital in a staff car after complaining that he did not feel well. Witnesses said he was wheeled from the vehicle on a stretcher. His two sons, Omri and Gilad, arrived soon afterwards. "He is conscious, speaking and joking," an unidentified doctor reportedly told the channel.
Mr Sharon had been speaking on the telephone from his car with Gilad when he said: "I don't feel well," the channel said. "Dad, go to hospital immediately," Gilad replied.
The heavily overweight Prime Minister's health and age have been lurking in the background throughout his premiership . The former army general has never released his medical records but has insisted that he is not suffering from any serious ailments.
If he is unable to return to work soon, his incapacity would blow Israel's general election campaign wide open. Kadima, the new centre-right party which Mr Sharon launched last month after resigning from Likud, has more than a dozen former Likud parliamentarians and a commanding lead in the polls, all but guaranteeing that Mr Sharon would remain as prime minister for a third term. But it is dependent on him for its appeal.
Without Mr Sharon, there would be no reason to vote for the party on 28 March. Kadima has no manifesto nor even a final list of candidates, let alone an obvious successor of comparable stature. Mr Olmert is a divider rather than a uniter. Ministers who defected with Mr Sharon would be left bobbing helplessly on the waves.
A weakened Kadima would give new heart to Labour, which had started flagging under its recently elected leader, Amir Peretz. Likud, which chooses its new leader in primary elections today, would be back with a fighting chance.
Mr Sharon's absence would also cast a shadow over the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Here, too, Israel's policy is Mr Sharon's, though he keeps the fine details close to his chest. He promised, for example, to draw a final border between Israel and a Palestinian state. It would, he said, include withdrawal from some West Bank settlements.
With this summer's Gaza disengagement, Mr Sharon showed he had the strength to evacuate Jewish communities without provoking civil war. It is far from certain anyone else in the present leadership could defy the settler lobby with the same success.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud front-runner, has veered to the nationalist right and probably would not even try. Mr Peretz prefers to negotiate immediately with the Palestinians for a final settlement, but would have to convince the voters to trust him with their security.