Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon fell ill and was hospitalized with what doctors described as "a minor stroke" Sunday, triggering widespread speculation about whether he is healthy enough to lead Kadima, the new centrist party he founded last month, into early elections in March.
Sharon, who turns 78 next month and is seriously overweight, had just left his Jerusalem office and was en route to his Negev ranch when he suddenly felt sick and his convoy rushed to Hadassah Hospital, arriving about 8 p.m.
Although Israeli media initially reported that he lost consciousness and regained it on the ride to the hospital, a hospital spokesman said following his admission that Sharon was "fully conscious" and talking with aides.
He underwent an MRI and was treated by a team of neurologists. Doctors said he was treated with blood thinners and did not require any invasive procedures. A spokesman for his office said Sharon asked to be discharged as soon as possible, although he was held overnight for observation.
Sharon's personal physician, Bolek Goldman, said the prime minister could be hospitalized "for a few days."
The sudden health scare gripped the nation as deputy prime minister Ehud Olmert, the second-in-command of Israel's government if the prime minister is incapacitated, rushed to the hospital and news stations began reporting live from the scene.
Although it appears Sharon will make a full recovery, the political impact of the episode leaves a lot in doubt.
"It will be exploited by everyone. Because at 77 this is the chink in his armor. We know nothing about this new Kadima party, other than that its leader is Ariel Sharon and that polls show it will get one-third of the seats in the Knesset," Israel's parliament, said political analyst Reuven Hazan.
"But what happens if he has a heart attack before or after the election? What are we getting in this package deal called Kadima? I think not only will his medical condition become an issue, but he is going to have to sell his path, his team and his legacy a lot harder to the Israeli public, which will be concerned about what happens should he not be there to carry through."
In short, Sharon will have to show that his party also has bench strength. And he will likely try to recruit even more mayors, writers, authors, intellectuals and former generals to the party to offset the perception that it lacks stamina, analysts said.
A lot will depend on how soon Sharon gets back to work, said Hazan. If it turns out that this is only a scare, "he could get people rallying around him, saying, 'Look at the poor guy, look at what the political system is doing to him. We need him and yet he is being ripped apart by friends and foes alike.' He could actually get some sympathy votes."
Sharon triggered what analysts here called a political "earthquake" last month after he abandoned the Likud Party he co-founded in 1973. Politically hamstrung by a rebellious faction within Likud that wanted to punish him for last summer's withdrawal of Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip, Sharon simply bolted his party, taking many Likud members with him and also drawing support from some left-of-center Labor Party leaders, including such prominent figures as former Prime Minister Shimon Peres.
But critics maintain that Kadima is nothing without Sharon. His hospitalization only throws that criticism into sharper relief.
"He is going to recover, and (his handlers) will play it down," said Uri Dromi, a political analyst with the Israel Democracy Institute. "But it really reminds people that he is not terribly healthy and that Kadima is really a one-man show."