JERUSALEM,(Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon returned to work on Sunday in a show of vigour a week after a mild stroke, telling the cabinet he had ordered tough military action against Palestinian rocket attacks.
The health scare has not harmed Sharon”s chances of re-election in March, polls show. The rocket attacks could be more damaging since they undermine his message that his withdrawal from Gaza this summer would improve security.
The hefty 77-year-old ex-general was released from hospital on Tuesday and remained at home for several days. Doctors said he was fit and would make a complete recovery.
Sharon joked and smiled at the start of the cabinet meeting. He looked healthy, though sounded a little hoarse.
Officials said Sharon told ministers that he had ordered security chiefs to take all measures to stop rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, which has continued despite Israeli artillery fire and airstrikes on launching grounds.
"We must make sure that they won”t act against us, this is my policy and my instructions," media quoted him as saying.
Israel gave its army the go-ahead on Friday to enforce a no-go zone inside the Gaza Strip at the border with Israel, a move condemned by Palestinians. Heavy rain since then has prevented military action by either side.
Militants say makeshift rockets are fired as retaliation for Israeli raids in the occupied West Bank. The violence has helped undermine hopes for peacemaking lifted by Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in September after 38 years of occupation.
Sharon”s rightist opponents, trying to claw back his big lead ahead of the March 28 election, seize on the rocket fire to bolster their argument that giving up Gaza”s Jewish settlements would bring more violence.
Sharon quit his right-wing Likud party last month, saying he sought a freer hand to end conflict with the Palestinians. Latest opinion polls gave Sharon”s centrist Kadima 40 seats in the new parliament with Leftist Labour on 19 and Likud on 15.
There is no suggestion that the stroke has damaged him politically at all.
As Sharon wished Israelis a happy Chanukah holiday, he made light of advice from doctors and well-wishers — including U.S. President George W. Bush — to eat more carefully after the stroke.
"I hope you all eat doughnuts and latkes. You can eat them, but don”t overdo it!" he said with a laugh.
Jam doughnuts and latkes, potato pancakes, are traditional food at Chanukah, a festival of lights celebrating a victory of the Jews over then Greek rulers. Sharon also wished Israel”s Christians, most of them Arabs, a happy holiday.
Political analysts said any further health problems could be a blow before elections. The stroke inevitably raised questions over how long he could dominate Israeli politics. He is very much a one-man show and his departure would cause a major upheaval.
Israeli newspapers said Sharon”s doctors may soon publish a report on his medical file to quell any speculation about his long term fitness to rule.