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Ariel Sharon in Coma

Aired January 5, 2006 - 18:00:00   ET


JONATHAN MANN, CNN HOST: A very big void. With Israel's Ariel Sharon hovering near death, his country and his new party are both at a crossroads. A very controversial figure leaves no comparable successor.
Hello and welcome.

Ariel Sharon is under anesthetic, unconscious, breathing with the aid of a ventilator. At the hospital where he's being treated we were told that predicting the future at this time is impossible.

Sharon underwent seven hours of emergency surgery to stop bleeding in his brain. Doctors are waiting to gauge the extend of his recovery, but even that will have to wait until he wakes from a medically-induced coma in a day or two and it is thought to be unlikely that he will recover enough to ever return to public life. The prime minister is now quite literally out of it.

On our program today, Israelis and Arabs contemplate what comes after.

We begin with CNN's John Vause.


JOHN VAUSE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): At a time of national crisis and uncertainty, this was perhaps the most telling image of the day: the Israeli prime minister's empty chair at an emergency cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. Like many Israelis, the man who is now acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, was worried, the strain obvious on his face.

"We pray and hope for good news from the hospital," he said. But the news remains grave.

This is the intensive care ward where Ariel Sharon is being treated. He is on life support and remains in a medically-induced coma which could last for three days. But his doctors refuse to give any indication of the prime minister's chances of recovery. That, they say, is impossible.

DR. SHOLOMO MOR YOSEF, HADASSAH HOSPITAL: Gradually we'll try to awake the prime minister in order to see his response and his brain activities.

VAUSE: Israel's rabbis ask the country to pray.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It pains us to see that the leader of the Jewish people is hospitalized.

VAUSE: But for some Jewish settlers in the West Bank, there was celebration. They have come to despise the prime minister because of his Gaza disengagement, handing the land over to the Palestinians.

"As far as we are concerned, there is justice in a judge," he says. "Whoever harms the land of Israel, the land of Israel will harm him."

And there were celebrations too for Palestinians in Gaza. These signs read "Death to Sharon" and "Go to hell."

"The whole region will be better off with him gone," says this Hamas spokesman, "because Sharon carried out massacres and terrorism for decades."

From the Palestinian Authority, though, a very different message.

SAEB ERAKAT, CHIEF PALESTINIAN NEGOTIATOR: I was asked by President Abbas to convey our best wishes and for his speedy recovery and we did.

VAUSE: On the news of Sharon's health crisis, the Tel Aviv stock market was down sharply. The currency, the shekel, also slid against the dollar, and as the prime minister clings to life, there will be many days, even months, of political turmoil ahead, not just for Israel but for the entire region.


Ariel Sharon has a reputation as a fighter, the heroic soldier who took part in all of Israel's wars, but as the hours become days, there are now growing fears that this could be one battle that he might not win -- Jonathan.

MANN: John, we saw the acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, at that cabinet meeting that was held earlier in the day, but I'm just curious. The country is now very suddenly in his hands. Israelis are in shock by any description. Has he spoken to the country?

VAUSE: Well, Ehud Olmert was on Israeli Army Radio and on the radio earlier today. If you know anything about Israel, Jonathan, you know that the radio is an institution in this country. Many Israelis tune in at the top of every hour to hear the news bulletin. It's a major source of news. So that is significant in itself.

But there has been no address to the nation, no national speech given by Ehud Olmert. That simply is not his style. He is not a man given to those kind of grand statements, that kind of thing. He is a no-nonsense politician who is giving the impression that he is holding the ship of state steady and that he is simply watching and waiting along with everybody else -- Jonathan.

MANN: Now, when this all happened Ariel Sharon was in the midst of an election campaign. What's happened to that campaign and to the men who were campaigning against him, Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud and Amir Peretz, the new leader at Labour.

VAUSE: Well, naturally the campaigning is on hold right now. We've heard from Benjamin Netanyahu last night, who said that he was offering his prayers for Ariel Sharon. In fact, that came in the early hours of this morning.

We have not heard much from the Labour leader, the newly-elected Labour leader, Amir Peretz. What we do know is that the Likud ministers, Ariel Sharon's former political party, who were set to resign from the government, meant to give up their ministerial positions at that cabinet meeting, that has been put on hold while all of the political parties here present a unified front in this moment of crisis for Israel -- Jonathan.

MANN: CNN's John Vause, thanks very much.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process had all but come to a halt long before Sharon's stroke. The United States had hoped that the upcoming elections would give both Israeli and Palestinian leaders a mandate to return to the table. In fact, many people had hoped that.

CNN's Andrea Koppel, though, has the United States side of the story.


ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had praise and prayers for Israel's prime minister.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. SECY. OF STATE: And hope for his recovery. Our prayers, our concerns, are with his family and also with the Israeli government and people at this very difficult time.

KOPPEL: But the United States top diplomat would not address the question on the minds of many: what are the prospects of Middle East peace without Sharon? The answer, say some analysts, is not encouraging.

ROB MALLEY, FMR. CLINTON ADMIN. OFFICIAL: There really hasn't been a peace process since Sharon has been prime minister. If there has been anything, it's been a Sharon process. If he is removed from the scene, as there is every indication he will be, all of these actors are going to have to recalibrate and come up with policies of their own.

KOPPEL: For President Bush it means uncertainty in a volatile region. His close relationship with the Israeli prime minister, forged after the September 11 attacks, grew even strong when Sharon withdrew Jewish settlers and Israeli troops from Gaza and parts of the West Bank last year.

With Palestinians and Israelis set to go to the polls in coming weeks, the United States had hoped President Abbas and Prime Minister Sharon would be reelected, paving the way for a renewed Bush for peace.

(on camera): Privately, U.S. officials acknowledge that ever since Sharon's stroke last month the United States had begun to think if not to plan for a post-Sharon era. But as a senior State Department official told CNN, it would show a certain lack of respect and dignity if U.S. officials were to talk about what-if scenarios just yet.

Andrea Koppel, CNN, at the State Department.


MANN: We take a break. When we come back, which direction forward? What will happen to Kadima, the new political party that the prime minister formed?

Stay with us.


MEIR SHEETRIT, KADIMA MEMBER (through translator): There is no doubt that the prime minister's health condition has critically affected the public opinion regarding the Kadima Party. I certainly hope that the public, when it sees the Kadima seriously progressing and carrying on Sharon's legacy, will give us the same trust and support that was given to the prime minister when he was heading the party.



On the same day the prime minister came so close to death his new party officially came to life. Israel's elections registrar issued official approval for Kadima, Forward. Its health is also being closely monitored.

Welcome back.

Kadima is said to have thousands of members but no formal structure for choosing a leader or for choosing a list of election candidates. And a poll released just a few hours ago by the "Ha'aretz" newspaper and Israel's Channel 10 offers some reassurance to party members, but not much guidance.

If former Prime Minister Shimon Peres is chosen to lead the party, it would do well according to the poll, with 42 seats in Israel's 120-seat Knesset.

Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is essentially in the same area. He could lead the part to 40 seats.

And Israel's justice minister, not nearly as well known outside the party, Tzipi Livni, might win 38 seats for the party.

In all three cases, according to the poll, Kadima would do very well.

A short time ago we got in touch with Yaron Ezrahi, author and professor at Hebrew University, to talk about what's ahead.


YARON EZRAHI, HEBREW UNIV.: He has the courage and the capacity to make the riskiest -- politically riskiest decisions and carry them out, as it was demonstrated in the Gaza withdrawal. That's why he commanded such respect. The former soldier became at the end of his life a statesman and.

MANN: I'm going to interrupt you on that point, because many people believe that as a result, Kadima could not succeed without him. This new poll from "Ha'aretz" and Channel 10 suggests that some alternative leaders could still do very well carrying on in his footsteps.

EZRAHI: I will not -- I would be very cautious not to overestimate a poll that was taken on such an emotional day while Sharon is still alive. I think that the polls which will be taken later in one week or two weeks will be much more accurate and better able to predict the future.

The question I think is whether Kadima without Sharon can still represent a center party which symbolizes the collapse of the right wing coalition, which dominated Israeli politics for so many years. It is possible. But then the new younger leadership of the likes of Ehud Olmert, the now-acting prime minister, will have to demonstrate the capacity to make decisions and to restore a sense of stability and confidence with the republic.

MANN: Now he was named, Ehud Olmert, he was named acting prime minister very quickly and seamlessly, but that's a government question. Within Kadima, there is no mechanism for choosing another leader. There is no mechanism for even choosing candidates to run for the election in March.

How much of a problem is that going to turn into?

EZRAHI: Well, I think it may not be such a big problem because of the fact that the survival of this group will depend on their ability to avoid right now internal political bickering, so that they are in my opinion not only just presenting today a united front, they may actually be able to keep it together for a while in order to gain enough time to reinvigorate the party after this crisis.

MANN: OK. So Kadima hangs together. Let me ask you about the two other most important political organizations in the country, Labour and Likud. What do they do now?

EZRAHI: Now, that's very interesting. I think that the bottom line is that if Kadima is without Sharon, it is likely to become in any case a smaller party in the long run and what it actually means is that Labour, Kadima and Likud may be parties which are not very much different from each other in terms of size, maybe the difference of five to seven mandates.

For an Israel parliamentary coalition government, that means that the larger party may not be larger by more than one or two mandates, but then the head of that party -- and that could be Labour and it could be Kadima -- it's less likely to be Likud -- would be given the chance to form the next government.

MANN: Which of those two parties profits the most from Kadima's new very sudden problems?

EZRAHI: I believe Labour, because Netanyahu has gathered honestly the reputation of being a right wing opportunist who can move center, back to the right, back to the center, sometimes even a little bit to the left, according to the wind. He has lost much credibility with the larger Israeli public and his success within his own smaller party is not in my opinion a basis for predicting his strength as a prime minister candidate.

On the other hand, Labour, especially if the head of Labour now, the new head, the union leader, Amir Peretz, will bring the former Prime Minster Ehud Barak to be number two, and even if he succeeds to bring Peretz back, I think Labour might stand a chance of being the largest party as a result of these elections.

MANN: It is a complicated calculation, a lot that is going to happen in the next few days. Yaron Ezrahi, of Hebrew University, thank you so much for talking with us.

EZRAHI: You're most welcome.


MANN: Just ahead, Ariel Sharon is both reviled and respected in the Arab world. We'll have a look at how Palestinians and others in the Middle East view his absence from the scene.

Stay with us.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): I do not care about Sharon. Sick or not, he's a criminal, a war criminal who massacred many people.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There was suffering a lot from Sharon and his leadership, but I think he's the only man who has the idea for this and the only one who can deliver his idea.



MANN: In the minds of millions of people, Ariel Sharon's name will forever be associated with Sabra And Shatila, two Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon where hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people were massacred in 1982 during Israel's invasion of the country. Israel forces didn't carry out the killings, but they were the work of Israel's Lebanese allies. An Israeli commission of inquiry found Sharon indirectly responsible.

Welcome back.

Sharon was the architect of the invasion, serving as the country's defense minister at the time. Many Arabs and some rights activists believe that Sharon should have been tried for war crimes as a result. Even so, Palestinians have learned to work with him and his likely departure from active political life doesn't necessarily work to their advantage.

Joining us now to talk about that is Washington bureau chief for "an Nahar," a familiar face to viewers of Al Arabiya and our viewers as well, Hisham Melhem.

Thanks so much for being with us once again.

To many Arabs, Ariel Sharon was a monster, but maybe one who in the end saw the light. He was the man who was building the wall, the separation barrier, but also the man who gave back Gaza. How are your readers, your viewers, how are journalists around the Arab world seeing the latest developments now with is health?

HISHAM MELHEM "AN NAHAR": Most people are trying to digest the meaning of Sharon's political demise at least at this stage. But as you said earlier, Sharon has been reviled universally in the Arab world for a long time. He has been seen as a warmonger with a long, bloody history dating back to his work as an officer in 1953 when he invaded a small village in the West Bank called Kibya (ph), ended up with the death of 67 civilians, all the way back to -- forward to the invasion of Lebanon, 1983, which caused the death of thousands of Lebanese and Palestinians, culminating in the Sabra and Shatila family, as you mentioned, where he was held responsible, albeit indirectly, for the massacre.

He was seen as the bulldozer that wreaked havoc in Palestinian territories and built a whole complex of settlements there. Ariel Sharon is a very tough man, even for his Israeli supporters and admirers. Palestinians had to deal with him, obviously, because he was elected the leader of Israel. I don't know if there is a great deal of respect. There is probably a sense of intimidation, maybe some respect, because you have to deal with the man that the Israelis have chosen as their leader, but the legacy of Ariel Sharon in the Arab world is likely to be radically different than the likely legacy of Sharon in Israel or in the United States.

Many Arabs still don't believe that Sharon has seen the light. Sharon, they would argue, is an Israeli nationalist who makes cold blooded calculations about what is in the best interest of his own country, Israel, and his withdrawal from Gaza was dictated by his understanding of the so- called demographic bomb, and he had to leave Gaza.

But Sharon's legacy in the Arab world is going to be very complex, and as you said, he was seen by many, practically most Arabs, at one time as the embodiment of evil. In our culture, we're not supposed to speak ill of the dead, but definitely in his later years he became more complex, and Arabs are noting now, including those who have been very critical of him, that he was the first Israeli leader to dismantle settlements, built probably on his own orders, built on Palestinian occupied territory. And to those who are thinking politically and not with their hearts at this stage in the Arab world, are noting this development, obviously.

MANN: He was, though he underwent or seemed to represent an extraordinary change of heart. He was a known quantity. There are others who might take his place -- Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Olmert or Amir Peretz. Some of them are known quantities. Could they to Arab eyes represent progress?

MELHEM: For the Arabs, Netanyahu would be probably worse than Sharon, because Netanyahu would probably not even recognize that Sharon has withdrawn from the West Bank and with Netanyahu becoming the prime minister, he would probably increase the settlement activities, particularly the biggest block, the big settlement blocks around Jerusalem, (INAUDIBLE) and Ariel (ph) and others.

So it would be a dead end, and that kind of uncertainty in the minds of Palestinians and other Arabs explains why they are watching with a sense of trepidation over the early phases of the post-Sharon era in Israel.

Shimon Peres, they tried him. They don't necessarily think highly of him because he's not decisive, he's not a strong leader for many Arabs. Olmert is not very well known in the Arab world. Amir Peretz is new.

So that sense of uncertainty, by the way, is unique, Jonathan, because this is the first time where you'll find uncertainty on the Palestinian political scene, uncertainty on the Israeli political scene, and if you add to that a disinterested United States or a United States that is bogged down or preoccupied with Iraq, and you add to that, to the mixture, the almost chaotic situation in the Palestinian territories, particularly in Gaza, you have truly for the first time a unique, disturbing political scene in both Israel and Palestinian.

MANN: You've touched on a lot there. Let me just ask you very quickly, how does the uncertainly in Israel multiply everything we have seen in the Palestinian areas? Would a strong Israeli leader, even one they don't like, help Palestinian leaders, help the Palestinian people, have a meaningful election and a peaceful one at that?

MELHEM: Precisely. I mean, these are the immediate issues that the Palestinians are preoccupied with, whether they're going to have elections or not, whether they will use -- whether Mahmoud Abbas will use the fact that the Israelis may not allow the residents of East Jerusalem, Arab East Jerusalem, to vote or not, or maybe the death of Sharon could postpone the election. This is a very important issue.

The other issue is that the Palestinians are very concerned that any new Israeli prime minister now is going to wrap himself with Sharon's cloak, so to speak, and is going to be as tough as Sharon, to prove his mettle and to prove his credibility vis--vis his Israeli constituency.

And also I would argue that any new prime minister in Israel is going to pursue unilateralism the way Sharon pursued it, because unilateralism is somewhat popular now in Israel. The Israelis are saying we're going to separate ourselves from the Palestinians. We're going to impose the borders that we want. And the Palestinians are going to be at the receiving end. And given the chaotic situation within Palestinian ranks, the inability of Hamas on the one hand and the Palestinian Authority on the other to come up with a unified vision as to what they want, what kind of Palestinian they want and how to achieve it, given that uncertainty on the Palestinian side, this will probably be used as an excuse by the Israelis, and maybe even by the Bush administration not to do anything.

That kind of uncertainty, open-endedness of the situation, is causing many thoughtful Palestinians and Arabs who are watching the scene to be very, very concerned.

MANN: When the leadership that is committed to the rule of law is weak, is it fair to assume extremists will win?

MELHEM: Absolutely. I mean, this is a general rule that you can apply to any culture. It has nothing to do with the Middle East. And this is my fear about what's taking place on the Palestinian side.

But also the chaos on the Palestinian side should be also seen in the context of Israeli actions, too. It's not only that Hamas has been reckless. It's not only that the Palestinian Authority did not do a very good job in terms of reform, but it's also the Israel actions in terms of building settlements, the separation wall, the making of life hellish for average Palestinians every day.

All of these conditions either play into the hands of the extremists or make them look as if they are the party that has the solution, which is not the case in my opinion.

MANN: Hisham Melhem, thanks very much for being with us once again.

MELHEM: Thank you.

MANN: That's INSIGHT for today. I'm Jonathan Mann. The news continues.



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