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As Sharon languishes, Kadima falters

Since Ariel Sharon became comatose almost three years ago, his Kadima party has dropped in popularity.

Ariel Sharon, right, and Ehud Olmert attend a session in Israel's parliament in 2005.
Ariel Sharon, right, and Ehud Olmert attend a session in Israel's parliament in 2005.

Tel Aviv // Ariel Sharon might not have been pleased had he been awake today. Since Mr Sharon became comatose from a stroke almost three years ago, the Kadima party he founded in 2005 with much fanfare has dropped in popularity and is struggling against a tide of polls showing it may lose its position as Israel's governing party in February's national election.

Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister, has been ousted both as Kadima leader and from the premiership amid a string of corruption investigations. Finally, Tzipi Livni, the newly elected Kadima leader, in October failed to patch together a coalition government that would have kept Kadima in power, prompting elections in which the party may be sidelined. Had he witnessed these developments, Mr Sharon "would have probably quipped in his very delicate cynical approach and say, 'this is not the baby I prayed for'," said Raanan Gissen, Mr Sharon's long-time spokesman and friend.

But Mr Sharon, who was nicknamed by Israelis as "the bulldozer" for his controversial policies during his military and political career, is oblivious to these developments. Once a central figure in Israeli politics, he has barely been mentioned in the current campaigns ahead of the February elections - even by his own Kadima party. Instead, he lies motionless in a coma in the Sheba Medical Center outside Tel Aviv, visited only by family members - often by his sons Omri and Gilad - and several close friends.

In just a few weeks, Israel will mark the third anniversary since Mr Sharon suffered a major stroke on Jan 4 2006 at age 77. The former Israeli leader underwent several life-saving surgeries following the stroke, and since May 2006 has been in a hospital room that is watched by bodyguards 24 hours a day in a unit for the long-term care of stroke patients at Sheba. Mr Sharon is being fed through a tube and is attached to a respirator, but his friends say he is breathing on his own. According to Israeli media, his few visitors read or play classical music to him, especially recordings by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra whose concerts Mr Sharon had often attended.

Mr Gissen said he visited Mr Sharon after the stroke but has not gone to the hospital since. "I don't want to remember him as he is," he said. "I want to remember him as he was." In a rare interview in September, Zeev Rotstein, the director-general of the Sheba Medical Center, described Mr Sharon's mental state as "minimal consciousness". "It's hard to know what he understands and what he doesn't understand around him," he told Israel's Army Radio. "In the beginning, we thought we'd see a better recovery from what was left of the brain, but it hasn't happened yet."

Mr Rotstein said Mr Sharon at times reacts to pain or to a familiar voice by moving his eyelids or fingers. Asked how Mr Sharon's appearance has changed, Mr Rotstein said that "as a patient confined to his bed for such a long time, it's totally obvious that he's different from a healthy man who functioned during the same years". Mr Sharon left the political arena at the peak of a long and controversial career. He had been vilified in the Arab world, where many dubbed him the "Butcher of Beirut" for the role he played in the 1982 massacre of hundreds of Palestinians by Lebanese Christian militiamen at Beirut's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps that were under Israeli control.

He has also been criticised for driving forward Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and for helping trigger the second Palestinian uprising in Sept 2000 when he visited Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. In 2005 - in a move some viewed as Mr Sharon's political transformation but which sceptics assessed as leverage to obtain international acceptance over Israeli control of the West Bank - Mr Sharon, serving as prime minister since 2001, withdrew Israel from Gaza. Nevertheless, the pullout won him international praise and Mr Sharon was headed towards re-election for a third term in office when he suffered his stroke.

According to Mr Gissen, Mr Sharon's absence has left a political void in Israel. "A lot of people, particularly for campaign purposes, claim that they are his successors. But Sharon never pointed out a successor," he said. Referring to Mr Olmert and Ms Livni, both of whom have succeeded Mr Sharon as heads of Kadima, he said both "have managerial talent, but none as far as leadership". While his political legacy is still being debated in Israel, some also question whether the former Israeli leader, whose condition has shown no improvement, should be kept alive.

"I believe that had he woken up today and the doctors told him, 'look, you have an opportunity to continue in the present state or to end this saga', he would end this saga," Mr Gissen said. "But that's not in his hands but in the hands of his family and they still hope and believe." vbekker@thenational.ae