JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon left hospital on Tuesday after a minor stroke and vowed to return to work quickly to pursue his battle for re-election on a platform of ending conflict with the Palestinians.
Smiling and joking with reporters but looking slightly drawn, Sharon, 77, said: "It appears that you have missed me."
Sharon”s health scare on Sunday shook Israel and raised questions over how long the bulky ex-general, nicknamed "the Bulldozer", could continue to dominate the political landscape. Doctors said Sharon would make a full recovery.
"Now I must quickly get back to work and move forward," he said in a pun on the name of his new party "Kadima", which means "forward" in Hebrew and was set up by Sharon after a dramatic break from his ruling Likud.
Opinion polls showed that the stroke had not harmed Sharon”s prospects for the general election on March 28. A Maariv newspaper poll said Kadima would win 42 seats in the 120-member parliament, the largest number predicted so far.
But political analysts say that any further health problems ahead of the vote could be more damaging. If Sharon were to leave the political stage it would inevitably mean a major upheaval.
Likud, shattered by Sharon”s departure, set in gear its campaign to recover from third place in opinion polls after picking ex-premier Benjamin Netanyahu — Sharon”s most bitter rival in the party — as leader on Monday.
Netanyahu resigned as finance minister in protest at Sharon”s removal of troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip this year after 38 years of occupation and rejects pullbacks from land captured by Israel in the 1967 war.
Sharon has said he wants to pursue peace with the Palestinians, but insists on keeping major settlement blocs in the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem, land that Palestinians also want for a state.
Talks on statehood have also been ruled out by Israel before Palestinians disarm militants under a U.S.-backed peace plan.
But Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says such a move could bring civil war and is struggling to deal with growing chaos ahead of January parliamentary elections in which his Fatah movement is challenged by Islamic militant group Hamas.
In a sign of the turmoil, Palestinian gunmen stormed the city hall in Bethlehem on Tuesday to demand money and jobs, disrupting preparations for Christmas in the city of Jesus”s birth.
Armed Palestinian security forces surrounded the building, overlooking the Church of the Nativity, where about 20 gunmen from al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades — part of Fatah — were holed up.