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What Now for Israeli Politics, and Middle East Peace?

Avi Arditti with VOA News reports

I'm Steve Ember with IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English.

The stroke that left Ariel Sharon fighting for his life this week also left political experts debating the effects on Middle East peace efforts.

The seventy-seven-year-old former general was expected to win a record third term as prime minister in Israeli elections this March. He held a strong lead over former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party.

Mister Sharon recently left Likud to form the Kadima Party. VOA's Jim Teeple in Jerusalem reported Friday that the Kadima Party could still win, based on public opinion studies.

But Tel Aviv University political scientist Joshua Teitelbaum says the Kadima Party may soon lose support. He thinks some of the popularity now is a "sympathy vote."

Mister Sharon suffered severe bleeding in the brain Wednesday. His deputy, Ehud Olmert, became acting prime minister.

As a young man, Ariel Sharon joined an armed Jewish group seeking to force British troops out of Palestine. The British administration ended after World War Two. But Arabs rejected a United Nations plan to divide the area into independent Arab and Jewish states.

Arab armies invaded Israel a day after it became a nation in nineteen forty-eight. Ariel Sharon was severely wounded in Israel's War of Independence. Mister Sharon became known as a fearless military commander. But he was also criticized as someone who could act without restraint.

In nineteen eighty-two, as defense minister, he organized the invasion of southern Lebanon. He led the offensive to stop attacks by the Palestine Liberation Organization of Yasser Arafat.

But armed Lebanese groups killed hundreds of Palestinians at two refugee camps under Israeli control near Beirut. Mister Sharon was removed from office. Israeli investigators found him indirectly responsible.

He began a return to politics in two thousand. Many critics saw his visit to a disputed holy place in Jerusalem as incitement for more violence by Palestinians.

That violence played a part in the resignation of Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Mister Sharon won a huge victory as prime minister in two thousand one. Israelis re-elected him in two thousand three.

Last year Palestinians elected Mahmud Abbas as their president after Yasser Arafat died. The election renewed hopes for a final peace agreement, with the goal of a Palestinian state. But progress slowed.

Shukri Abed at the Middle East Institute in Washington calls Ariel Sharon "the father of building settlements" in Gaza and the West Bank. He says many Palestinians probably hated him for his strong positions.

But last year Ariel Sharon completed the withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza. That followed an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire.

Mister Sharon's decision to withdraw from Gaza caused trouble within the Likud Party. In November, he and some allies formed their new centrist Kadima Party. Kadima means "forward" in Hebrew. Now people are waiting to see what direction the future takes.

And that's IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English. I'm Steve Ember.