RAMALLAH, West Bank – Palestinian leaders anxiously followed reports of Ariel Sharon’s deteriorating health yesterday, fearing the prime minister’s departure from the political scene could worsen turmoil in the West Bank and Gaza – or even derail Palestinian elections.
The Israeli leader is still widely reviled in the Arab world, but reactions among ordinary Palestinians were largely subdued. A few schoolchildren handed out candy in a Gaza refugee camp and hoisted posters saying, “Death to Sharon.”
The 77-year-old Israeli leader was in serious condition at a Jerusalem hospital after seven hours of emergency surgery to stop widespread bleeding in his brain. Sharon’s associates said they did not expect the prime minister to recover enough to resume his post.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas telephoned Israeli officials to express concern over Sharon’s condition.
“We look with great worry on what might happen if (Sharon) is impaired,” Abbas said upon returning to Ramallah late yesterday.
The two leaders last met in June to coordinate the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. During the tense meeting, Sharon scolded Abbas for not doing enough to halt terror attacks.
Before he took ill, Sharon – who suffered a minor stroke on Dec. 18 before his massive stroke Wednesday night – had been expected to lead his Kadima Party and its peacemaking agenda to a solid victory in March 28 Israeli elections. That vote was called after Sharon defected from the hard-line Likud Party he formed 30 years ago, despairing of persuading it to make more concessions to the Palestinians.
The vacuum created by Sharon’s absence is liable to translate into more indecision and tougher positions toward the Palestinians, Palestinian officials said.
“We are really concerned,” said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. “We hope that competition (to succeed him) will not be at our expense, meaning more settlements, more walls, more incursions, more assassinations, more occupation, more dictates.”
Mohammed Dahlan, a senior Palestinian official, said Sharon’s departure from the political stage would “turn the political situation on its head, both in Israeli society and the entire region.”