JERUSALEM -- Prime Minister Ariel Sharon survived his latest medical crisis yesterday - one that has served, somewhat poignantly, to underscore the degree to which the Israeli political torch has passed to his successor, Ehud Olmert.
The 77-year-old leader, who has been comatose since a massive stroke more than five weeks ago, was said by doctors to be out of immediate danger after emergency surgery yesterday in which about 1 1/2 feet of his large intestine were removed.
Shlomo Mor-Yosef, director of Hadassah University Medical Center at Ein Kerem, told reporters at the hospital that Sharon, who has been unconscious since a catastrophic cerebral hemorrhage Jan. 4, had come through four hours of surgery safely.
"Initially, it seemed his life was threatened," said Mor-Yosef, addressing reporters as he stood in front of the blue-and-white logo of Hadassah, Israel's premier hospital, where Sharon has been under treatment since his stroke.
Sharon has shown few or no signs he would emerge from his coma, other than moving his limbs in response to pain stimuli. Doctors performed a tracheotomy last month to help him breathe with the aid of a respirator, and on Feb. 1 inserted a feeding tube - another sign that his condition was considered one of long-term incapacitation.
Despite the initial shock of Sharon's disappearance from political life, the speed of events in this country dictated that his successor could not remain a mere figurehead for long. Olmert, who was Sharon's deputy and among his closest confidants, stepped in as interim prime minister after the stroke and almost immediately began dealing with challenges, including the Jan. 25 victory of the militant group Hamas in Palestinian parliamentary elections.
Olmert has assumed the leadership of Kadima, the centrist party Sharon founded weeks before his stroke, in the campaign for Israel's March 28 elections. The party, whose platform calls for the creation of a Palestinian state, holds a commanding lead in the polls.
But the right-wing Likud Party, of which Sharon was a founding member in the 1970s, has been seeking to position itself as the only political entity with the resolve to confront Hamas and other threats.
In an acknowledgment that Sharon had left the political stage, his party was unable to give him even a symbolic place on its slate of candidates in the coming election. Under the law, the Israeli leader would have had to sign papers attesting to his candidacy.
Sharon's stroke came on the eve of a planned procedure to correct a congenital heart defect. That defect, a tiny tear in one of his heart's upper chambers, was thought to have contributed to a minor stroke Dec. 18 by allowing a blood clot to travel to his brain.
Decisions made in the course of the prime minister's medical treatment have aroused controversy in Israel. Some doctors not involved in his case expressed astonishment that he was allowed to return to work so soon after the initial stroke.
Others have questioned whether the prime minister should have been treated with blood thinners, which can increase the risk of a massive cerebral hemorrhage like the one he subsequently experienced.
Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.