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Last Updated: Monday, 7 January 2008, 09:45 GMT
Comatose Sharon's influence still felt
By Martin Patience
BBC News, Jerusalem

In the sprawling Sheba Medical Centre close to Tel Aviv, the man who once led Israel lies incapacitated.

Ariel Sharon when Israeli Prime Minister - 21/11/2005
Many Israelis felt Mr Sharon could be trusted on security issues
Two years ago, then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a massive stroke and fell into a coma from which he has never recovered.

Nicknamed "the bulldozer", Mr Sharon, 79, was a leader who generated - and continues to generate - fierce emotions in Israel and abroad.

The former general and political right-winger surprised the Israeli public when he pushed through the evacuation of Jewish settlements in Gaza in 2005 against strong opposition.

He was regarded by many Israelis as a politician who could be trusted on security issues.

For Palestinians, however, he was a hate figure, forever associated with brutal military assaults and the Sabra and Shatila massacres in Lebanon in 1982.

'Old-time farmer'

But now Mr Sharon is cocooned in a small hospital room with a view of a sculpture garden.

Lying unconscious and attached to a feeding tube, Mr Sharon is guarded by a plain-clothes security detail, and receives round-the-clock care from a group of medics.

A short statement issued to the BBC on Thursday from the medical centre reads: "He has been in deep coma since his admission and throughout the period there have been some signs of response to several kinds of stimuli.

Sharon delivered peace of mind to Israelis
Raanan Gissin

"He has been treated with the adequate medications and no operations were required."

Most days the former Israeli leader is visited by his two sons, Gilad and Omri.

They play their father's favourite music - Vivaldi's Four Seasons - read to him from the newspapers and tell him how much rainfall fell at his beloved ranch in the south of the country.

"They (the sons) have handled this tragedy in a very quiet manner," says Dov Weisglass, a close friend and former senior adviser to Mr Sharon.

"Their father and late mother are old-time farmers, who were very restrained people that showed little emotion and that's what you see in the sons."

'Trust lacking'

But the fierce loyalty that Mr Sharon commanded when prime minister still exists even as he lies unconscious. His driver of almost 20 years visits the hospital every day.

It is this loyalty and ability to "take people with him to places that they'd otherwise not go" that is sorely missing in Israeli politics today, says Mr Sharon's former spokesman Raanan Gissin.

Israeli politicians - including the current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert - appear to position themselves as Mr Sharon's heir apparent.

Ambulance carrying Ariel Sharon to Tel Hashomer medical centre near Tel Aviv
Mr Sharon was moved for long-term treatment in May 2006
But what Mr Olmert - and other politicians - lack is that rare political commodity of trust, says Mr Gissin.

About a week before Mr Sharon's stroke, Mr Gissin says he was reading out the newspapers to the prime minister as he did every day.

Mr Sharon became exasperated asking "what do they want from me?" after several columnists said he would win the forthcoming elections but could never deliver peace.

"But I told him to calm down," recalls Mr Gissin. "I said to him, 'they can't expect peace from you with all the Arab radicalisation but what they can expect is peace of mind.' And that's what Sharon delivered, he delivered peace of mind to Israelis."

'Recovery possible'

Many political commentators and analysts agree with this sentiment.

Ari Shavit, a political columnist for the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, says that the void left by Sharon has never been filled.

"Sharon never had a real successor," he says. "Theoretically his party and his ideas are still in power. But Sharon gave a sense of leadership to the country in a way that the current government does not."

Despite the fact that Mr Sharon has not gained consciousness in two years, some friends and family still believe that the former prime minister could make a recovery.

He is reported to show some response to the sound of the voices of his close family.

One of his sons, Omri, told the Israeli daily newspaper Maariv that he and has brother would not be marking today's anniversary.

The only anniversary they would mark, he said, was when their father rose from his bed.

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