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Analyst: 'Damage done' to Israeli politics

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Ariel Sharon
Israel
Wolf Blitzer

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was taken to a hospital Sunday after suffering what doctors said was a mild stroke.

The 77-year-old recently quit the Likud Party to form his own political group, Kadima, which he will lead into elections in March. CNN's Wolf Blitzer discussed what impact the prime minister's health will have on Israeli politics with Gil Hoffman, political editor of the Jerusalem Post newspaper.

BLITZER: Give us a little political perspective on what this means, the fact that Ariel Sharon has now had a mild stroke?

HOFFMAN: Well, Wolf, this is going to change Israeli politics dramatically. Even if Sharon is just fine and walks out of the hospital tomorrow feeling like a 20-year-old, the damage has been done, and this March 28 election has suddenly just gotten a lot more exciting.

BLITZER: In the sense that people are going to question whether or not he's up to the job, whether he should be re-elected?

HOFFMAN: Absolutely. Age was never an issue in this campaign. It was always something really swept under the rug, amid more pressing concerns about Israel's security and economy ahead of the election. But now, Sharon can't ignore that issue anymore, and it's bound to be the issue of the campaign for the next few months.

BLITZER: So who are the other leading candidates? I assume Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister, wants to be the leader of the Likud. I assume Ehud Olmert, the vice prime minister, who's a close ally of Ariel Sharon, he would like to be prime minister. And there are Labor Party candidates as well.

HOFFMAN: Well, there's an election tomorrow inside the Likud, Wolf, for the leader of the Likud Party, between Netanyahu, as you said, and Silvan Shalom, our foreign minister. And that race -- that was expected to be really irrelevant, a race for the leader of the third largest party in Israel -- has now become much more important.

Now, whoever wins that race will be seen as a candidate for prime minister, who stands a chance of getting elected. Sharon's new party, the Kadima Party, is expected to fall in the polls, because this is a party built on the image of Ariel Sharon, and if Ariel Sharon won't be around forever, then that changes everything.

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