While Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is unpopular in the Arab world, some Arab political analysts are watching Mr. Sharon's health with great interest, and even anxiety, because of concerns that his sudden exit from the political scene could lead to instability and uncertainty in a region that can ill-afford it.
Even if Ariel Sharon recovers from his massive stroke, medical experts say, it is extremely unlikely that he could bounce back quickly enough to lead his party into the election scheduled for March. And, so, his stroke signals a likely sudden departure from the Middle Eastern political landscape, where, for decades, he has been one of the region's most dominant personalities, and one of its most polarizing figures.
Egyptian newspaper columnist Fahmy Howeidy of al-Ahram says there is probably no Israeli politician in recent memory who has engendered such hatred in the Arab world. "Sharon was a fanatic," he said. "We [Arabs], at least, historically, we don't trust Sharon. We think Sharon is an extremist."
The most personal resentment dates back to the early 1980s, when Mr. Sharon was Israeli defense minister and engineered the invasion of Lebanon. An Israeli investigation found him indirectly responsible for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Christian militias allied with Israel.
As prime minister, Mr. Sharon backed the building of the controversial separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank. His government refined the Israeli practice of targeted assassinations, including that of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.
All of those policies have been reviled in the Arab world. But Mr. Sharon's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza surprised many in the region. It gave some Arab intellectuals the cautious hope that the hard-line Israeli leader had become more of a pragmatist, leaving more room for negotiation. And there is also concern that his replacement could be even more of a hard-liner, putting the already fragile peace process in more danger.
Political science Professor Hassan Nafae, of Cairo University, says there is some irony in the fact that many in the Arab world are anxious about the possible fallout from the political exit of a man who has been the focus of such rage. "Unfortunately, the region is very unstable, and is heading to more instability because of this development," he said.
He points to the political crises in Lebanon and Syria, the nuclear standoff between Iran and the West, and the continuing unrest in the Gaza Strip. Mr. Nafae says Ariel Sharon might be a polarizing force, but he is also a stabilizing one.
"What Sharon represented, has always represented, and what he is representing even now, was not enough to reach a real viable settlement in the Middle East," he added. "I think many Palestinians do believe so, many Arabs also. But, at the same time, the disappearance of Sharon in this particular moment... now you don't have a real leader in Israel that could stabilize the situation in Israel first. And because you don't have a stable political scene in Israel, you cannot move toward a political solution, or a political settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict."
The Arab satellite television networks have been extensively covering the Israeli leader's health crisis. Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Al-Arabiya that the prime minister's stroke has cast what he called a long shadow over the Palestinian election, scheduled for the end of the month.