Sharon recovering as exit polls show Netanyahu winning Likud primary

RAMALLAH — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is recovering in hospital after suffering a mild stroke Sunday and could be released as soon as Tuesday.

Doctors said the 77-year-old Sharon should make a full recovery, but added that while he might soon be released it could take some time before he is able to return to a full working day.
His sudden hospitalisation raised concern in Israel and members of Kadima (Forward), the party
Sharon recently formed after splitting from the Likud, were quick to try and dispel the prevalent image of that party as a one-man show yesterday.

Kadima member and Finance Minister Ehud Olmert, who is filling in as PM during Sharon’s hospitalisation, told Israel Radio on Monday that while the party is not discussing possible successors to Sharon, it “is a wild exaggeration to say that Kadima is just Ariel Sharon.”

Nevertheless, Sharon’s stroke has highlighted a leadership vacuum in Israel. The former general, denounced by Palestinians as the man responsible for massacres of Palestinians from 1953 in Qibya to 1982 in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Lebanon, has more than any other leader defined Israeli politics in the last four years and enjoys a higher level of popularity than any Israeli PM since Ben Gurion.

That vacuum was only underlined by yesterday’s lacklustre turnout to elect a new leader of Sharon’s former party, the Likud, where, with three hours left until polls closed, just over a quarter of the party’s 128,000 party members had bothered to vote. The frontrunners in that race are Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and former finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but they are set to take over a party that in recent polls are projected to win no more than 11-12 seats in March elections as compared to the 40 the party won in the last elections.

Elsewhere, Palestinian criticism of EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana’s remarks Sunday that the Palestinian Authority could lose funding should Hamas partake in a new Palestinian government after elections at the end of January continued yesterday.

Palestinian Minister of Planning Ghassan Khatib told The Jordan Times that if the EU was hoping to scare voters away from Hamas it was employing exactly the wrong tactic.

“The political targeting of Hamas by Israel, the US and the EU will only enhance the public standing of the movement and improve its chances in the election,” Khatib said.

Hamas spokesman Mushir Al Masri, meanwhile, denounced Solana’s remarks as “pure extortion.”

“The US and the EU must respect the choice of the Palestinian people,” Masri said yesterday.

His remarks were followed by further denunciation from Damascus where Hamas leader Khaled Mishaal dismissed the EU’s move as “a flagrant interference” in internal Palestinian affairs and urged the PA not to bow to EU pressure.

The EU’s stand “harms its advocates and the European stand, more than it can harm Hamas,” Mishaal told AP. “It reflects the double-standard policy and playing with the values of democracy and freedom.”

“So long as people have opted for democracy, they should respect its results and should not confiscate the right of the Palestinian people to choose [their leaders],” Mishaal said.

The Palestinian Authority receives about $1 billion a year in international aid — about half the PA’s budget — and EU assistance is slated to reach 260 million euros ($312 million) in 2006.

Early Monday morning, Israeli warplanes again struck the Gaza Strip. The Israeli army said it was targeting roads used by those firing rockets into Israel. No casualties were reported.

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