TEL AVIV -- It's an old saying, but today really is the first day of the rest of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's life. He walked out of a Jerusalem hospital, smiling, joking to reporters, "apparently you missed me?" Suddenly he's a world leader who has survived a health scare. Doctors gave him a clean bill of health, pronouncing him fully recovered from a "mild stroke" that caused Israel to hold its collective breath Sunday night. Aides play the entire episode down as nothing that serious. But this country was stunned, while probably not surprised their 77-year-old leader, 10 years beyond retirement age here, visibly overweight and carrying the considerable weight of this part of the world on his shoulders, faced a medical emergency. It's really a wonder nothing like this has ever happened before.
The fact is, if it has happened before, few here know, certainly not the general public and certainly not Sharon's enemies and rivals. His medical records are private, sealed. And calls to change that in recent years have been dismissed. Now that may change.
While Israel paused, while doctors unclogged the blood clot that stopped on its way from Sharon's heart to his brain, many here probably allowed themselves a few moments to wonder what would become of their country without him. Here, no disrespect intended, we took a look at his obit. Just in case. A summary of his life that's on tape in the library, sitting next to those of other world leaders, entertainers, activists and prominent personalities, now in their later years. A year ago everyone the obituary of Sharon's arch nemesis Yasser Arafat.
Sharon's bio (not an obit since he's still with us) says he has always symbolized Israel's Iron Fist. He's been a fighter from the start. Born on a family farm, first wounded in the war that created Israel, and a military leader often called on by his nation when he the going got tough. (Forgive me Martin Fletcher, resident correspondent here, if I've borrowed a few of your well chosen phrases.) To some extent, Sharon is the classic military man who rose to lead his nation. But when you think back about his journey, it's hard to imagine where he stands now. The right wing hawk has turned so much more pragmatic in what's perhaps the twilight of his life. Others probably would call it wisdom.
That's why Sharon's illness, and how well he recovers, is so crucial to this nation, this region and beyond. He has just formed a new political party, Kadima, or Forward. It's a move to the center, a break with the right, that is profoundly shaking up Israeli politics. Many here say Kadima is a one-man show. Sharon and his new party lead in the polls. If he wins re-election in March, many expect more bold initiatives like his decision to unilaterally disengage from Gaza, forcing thousands of settlers, the community he championed for so many years, to now leave their land to Palestinians. The decision tore his old political party, Likud, apart.
What's next? Many here predict initiatives that could shape Israel, and perhaps its final borders, for generations to come. All of it largely the work and vision of one man who now dominates this country's politics. That's why Israel held its breath Sunday night. Incidentally, that's also why some of Sharon's enemies were celebrating in the streets as rumors spread of his death.