Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is fighting for his life in a Jerusalem hospital after suffering a massive stroke late Wednesday. His illness has thrown both Israeli politics and resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into great uncertainty.
Mr. Sharon's illness sent shockwaves through Israel and caused concern worldwide. The focus has been on prayers for his recovery and messages of support, but the widespread assumption, even if not publicly spoken, is that Mr. Sharon will not return to office.
The obvious question is, what happens now?
It's too early to tell, says political columnist Akiva Eldar of Israel's Haaretz newspaper, who spoke to VOA from Tel Aviv.
"It seems that it's not only that Sharon is out of the political arena, it's that Sharonism is out of the arena," he said.
Ariel Sharon, nicknamed the bulldozer, was a forceful individual most of his life - first as a military commander, as a proponent of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land and later as a skillful politician who pushed his new vision of unilateral withdrawal from some Palestinian areas and the dismantling of settlements.
Akiva Eldar says Mr. Sharon took a political risk and won the overwhelming support of the Israeli people.
"Many Israelis were very anxious about tearing apart the territories, or 'greater Israel,' [that it] would tear apart the nation, which didn't happen," he explained. "So, he [Sharon] took this risk and he proved that this is possible."
Mr. Eldar says Mr. Sharon's plan was seen by many Israelis as a viable option, a way to enhance their own security by unilaterally disengaging from the Palestinians without having to go through the tough process of negotiations.
To push his plan forward, Mr. Sharon recently left the right-wing Likud Party that he helped found, to form a new centrist party called Kadima. Kadima has scored high in opinion polls, but was built almost exclusively around Ariel Sharon. With him out of the picture, it is uncertain if the party will survive or how well it might do in the March elections.
Ariel Sharon seemed intent on completing his plan to secure Israel's future and his own legacy.
Paul Scham is an adjunct scholar with the Middle East Institute, a non-profit research center in Washington. He says Mr. Sharon ran out of time to leave a clear, historic legacy.
"At this point he has moved the center-right [of Israeli politics] towards a somewhat more conciliatory position and left a legacy of being willing to deal with the Palestinians," he noted. "He has also though left a legacy of unilateralism."
Ariel Sharon reluctantly supported President Bush's plan for an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, to be brought about via the Road Map peace plan. The Bush administration initially gave its lukewarm support to Mr. Sharon's plan to pull out of Gaza. But, Washington then focused on that withdrawal as a way to jump-start renewed peace negotiations.
Paul Scham thinks Mr. Sharon's departure from the political scene will stall any new efforts.
"I think there's going to have to be a time-out for the moment," he added. "The Palestinian elections are scheduled, then when the Israeli elections come up, I think the U.S. will in many ways sit on the sidelines and see how things develop."
Palestinian elections are scheduled for later this month, the Israeli elections for late March. And, Mr. Scham says during a period of so much political uncertainty even Israel's closest ally, the United States, will not be able to push peace efforts forward.