JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon began breathing on his own on Monday, the first positive sign as doctors tried to bring him out of an induced coma to assess brain damage from a massive stroke.
“He is still connected to respirators that help him but the prime minister is breathing spontaneously,” Shlomo Mor-Yosef, director of Jerusalem’s Hadassah hospital, told reporters. “This is the first sign of some sort of activity in his brain.”
As Israelis kept anxious vigil for the 77-year-old leader many had seen as the best hope for resolving their conflict with the Palestinians, Sharon’s medical team gradually began reducing his sedation to allow him to regain consciousness.
The process, which could take days to complete, is critical for determining the extent Sharon’s faculties have been impaired and his chances for survival, though outside experts say there is no guarantee he will awaken from anesthesia.
Only an hour after doctors began weaning Sharon off drugs that had been used to keep him in a coma since his stroke on Wednesday, they reported he was taking his first breaths.
“This is one stage, a first stage,” Mor-Yosef said, adding that Sharon remained in critical condition.
Sharon’s surgeons say there is a good chance he will live. But medical consensus is he has suffered too much damage to ever return to politics, an arena he has dominated in recent years like no figure since founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.
The loss of Sharon, a former general who raised peace hopes by pulling settlers and troops out of Gaza in September to end 38 years of military rule, would create a huge void in the Middle East peace process.
Sharon had been kept under heavy sedation for five days to aid healing after a series of emergency operations that stopped bleeding in the brain caused by the stroke.
As the drugs wear off, Sharon’s neurosurgeons will be looking for his response to voices and other stimuli, including whether he moves his fingers or opens his eyes.
“The best news would be if Sharon wakes up, (a doctor) tells him ‘squeeze my hand’, and he does,” Dr. Azriel Perl, a senior Tel Aviv anesthetist who was not treating the prime minister, told the Maariv newspaper’s NRG news Web site.
However, if doctors declare Sharon permanently incapacitated, they will pass on their finding to Israel’s attorney general. The cabinet would then elect a prime minister from ministers of Sharon’s Kadima party who are also lawmakers.
Sharon’s deputy, Ehud Olmert, already named acting prime minister, would be expected to keep the job in the run-up to a general election already scheduled for March 28.
BUSINESS AS USUAL
Olmert projected a message of business as usual on Sunday in televised remarks at the weekly cabinet meeting and at a news conference in which he promised continued economic stability.
Sitting next to Sharon’s vacant chair at the cabinet table, Olmert pledged to “run matters as he would have wished.”
Throughout Israel, radios and televisions were tuned to news broadcasts as worried Israelis followed Sharon’s fate. Two young children showed up at the hospital gates with their uncle and put up a sign saying: “Ariel Sharon, please wake up.”
Normally fractious Israeli politicians observed a self-imposed moratorium on in-fighting.
World leaders have pledged support for Olmert, 60, a former Jerusalem mayor, as he stands in for Sharon.
Sharon is reviled in the Arab world but increasingly seen by the West as having opened up new prospects for peace. He suffered the stroke at a crucial juncture as he was fighting for re-election on a promise to end conflict with the Palestinians.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie voiced wishes for Sharon’s recovery.
However, reflecting tension over Sharon’s tough handling of a five-year-old Palestinian uprising, he expressed hope the outcome would be “for the good of the peace process and not bring more oppression.” Sharon has said the measures he imposed were self-defense against suicide bombings and other attacks.
Political analysts said Israel’s March election, which Sharon had been widely expected to win as head of his new centrist Kadima party, would become an open race without him.
However, a television poll showed Olmert edging ahead as the favored candidate. He was the first choice of 28 percent of Israelis, compared with 23 percent for Likud chief Benjamin Netanyahu and 16 percent backing Labor leader Amir Peretz.
Much of Sharon’s popularity among Israelis stems from a belief he could take bold steps toward reconciliation with the Palestinians which others would not get away with, given his background as the archetypal hawk.
Sharon had been campaigning on a platform of readiness to give up some occupied land in the West Bank, but has vowed to hold on to major West Bank settlement blocs, a prospect Palestinians say would deny them a viable state.