Doctors believe that Ariel Sharon won’t live much longer. But who would have predicted when he had his debilitating stroke in January 2006 that he would hang on for eight years in a vegetative state?
The then prime minister’s stroke may have changed the course of Israeli history. On Jan. 3, 2006, the day before Sharon suffered his stroke, JTA noted a report that he planned to seek U.S. approval for Israel to unilaterally delineate a border with the West Bank. (Though Sharon was also facing some political problems at the time of his stroke: His son Omri had just resigned from the Knesset and was awaiting sentencing stemming from his involvement in a political funding scandal.)
After Sharon was rushed to the hospital on Jan. 4, 2006, the deputy prime minister, Ehud Olmert, took the reins of power. “We hope that the prime minister will recover, gain strength, and with God’s help, will return to run the government of Israel and lead the State of Israel,” Olmert said a few days later.
By then, however, a return to power for Sharon seemed highly unlikely, as JTA reported:
But while doctors said they would try to bring the prime minister out of his induced coma Monday, a prognosis took shape whereby he could survive, but in a form of forced retirement. Sharon’s chief surgeon, Dr. Jose Cohen, put the chances of Sharon living at “very high.”
Sharon, of course, did survive, but in a continued coma.
With Sharon sidelined, the big question as Israeli politics moved on was whether his successor would continue his signature policy of unilateral disengagement from the Palestinians.
As JTA asked at the time:
If the results of the current polls hold up and Kadima wins the election, will Olmert or some other Kadima leader be able to further Sharon’s groundbreaking withdrawal from territory the Palestinians demand? Under Sharon, the idea would have been to reach agreement on this with the Palestinians and — absent an agreement — to get international sanction for new borders Israel would set on its own.
Whether an alternative Israeli leadership will be able to proceed in this vein is perhaps the most important political question in a post-Sharon era. Along with Sharon’s medical condition, it’s this question, more than any other, that is troubling Israel, the region and the international community.
Kadima did win that election, with Olmert holding on to the prime ministership. But Sharon’s death ended up putting an end to his policy of unilateral disengagement, and eight years later, there is still no Israeli-Palestinian agreement.