Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon remains in critical condition after suffering a massive stroke, a development that has shocked the country and left it with an uncertain political future. Analysts are now looking ahead to who might emerge as Israel's next leader, and the impact Mr. Sharon's legacy will have on Israel's future.

Most medical experts predict that Ariel Sharon's stroke and cerebral hemorrhage will prohibit him from returning to Israeli politics, which creates an unexpected and immediate vacuum in the leadership of the Jewish state.

In withdrawing Jewish settlers from Gaza as well as a small part of the West Bank, and creating the new Kadima political party, Mr. Sharon became Israel's undisputed leader.

Israeli politicians from both sides of the political spectrum flocked to the new party, and opinion polls showed it would win more seats than any other faction in elections scheduled for late March.

Israeli Broadcasting Authority Washington bureau chief Yaron Deckel has written about Mr. Sharon and followed his career closely for 20 years.

He says the prime minister's primary legacy is ending the political taboo of moving Jewish settlers and Israeli troops from the Palestinian territories. "I think Prime Minister Sharon's legacy is mainly breaking the huge psychological barrier in Israel that you can never evacuate a settlement. I think that once this barrier no longer exists, there will be a potential for more evacuations of settlements in the territories in the future, either by an agreement with the Palestinians or by unilateral action," he said.

Analysts say Mr. Sharon abandoned Israel's right-wing Likud party because its base of Jewish settlers would likely block him from making key decisions about Israel's future.

They say he reflected the views of most Israelis who do not believe the Palestinians will soon be partners in peace, but do think the time has come to separate from them.

The director of the Hudson Institute Center for Middle East Policy, Meyrav Wurmser, says Mr. Sharon's genius was his ability to move from the right-wing of Israeli politics to the center. "Even without setting a developed political agenda, Sharon was able to attract wide public support by claiming to be a centrist. Israelis, it turned out, were tired of legacies. All they wanted was an experienced politician with practical solutions. His appeal to the Israeli voter was his image as an experienced political realist," he said.

Analysts say acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is the early frontrunner to replace Mr. Sharon, although the Israeli political scene frequently changes quickly and has, at times, been difficult to predict.

Mr. Olmert, a former mayor of Jerusalem, joined the Kadima party and has been a point-man for Mr. Sharon's disengagement and separation policies from the Palestinians.

The chief U.S. correspondent for Israel's Haaretz newspaper, Shmuel Rosner, predicts Mr. Olmert will have a more difficult time governing the country because he does not have the extensive military experience or historical background of Mr. Sharon. "He will have to be a different kind of leader because of his limited capacity to maneuver public opinion in the way Sharon did. Olmert is not as popular as Sharon was, and still is. He does not have the same aura of being a founding father and there is no way for him to be executing his policy the same way Sharon did," he said.

Prime Minister Sharon is a close ally of the United States and has enjoyed the strong support of the Bush administration.

Analysts say despite the political earthquake in Israel, there should be no major changes in the country's strategic relationship with the United States.