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Sharon era comes to symbolic end in Israel

By Staff
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JERUSALEM, Apr 11 (Reuters) Ariel Sharon's tenure as Israel's prime minister came to a symbolic end today at a cabinet meeting that formally designated Ehud Olmert to replace the comatose stroke victim.

Under Israeli law, Sharon will be categorised as permanently incapacitated and unable to serve as prime minister on Friday, 100 days after suffering his stroke.

Olmert, deputy prime minister when Sharon fell ill in January, was named interim prime minister at the time.

At a special session, the cabinet voted unanimously to designate Olmert acting prime minister, an appointment which Cabinet Secretary Yisrael Maimon said would take effect on Friday. The title change will not alter his powers of office.

''It is a difficult and sad day for all of us,'' Maimon said during a portion of the meeting that was open to the media. ''We never thought this moment would arrive.'' As leader of the centrist Kadima party that Sharon founded last November, Olmert is trying to form a coalition government following Israel's March 28 parliamentary election. Kadima came in first place in the ballot.

Olmert, 60, will become prime minister in his own right once the government he hopes to put together is sworn in.

''I very much hope that today's decision will be in effect for just a short period,'' Olmert told the cabinet. ''I hope ... we will be able to bring a new government to parliament for approval as quickly as possible.'' Olmert has pledged to set Israel's borders with or without Palestinian agreement, through evacuation of isolated Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and the strengthening of major settler blocs in the territory.

Sharon, 78, never regained consciousness after his brain haemorrhage. The former general is expected to be moved soon to a long-term care facility, or back home to his ranch in southern Israel under medical supervision.

For decades, Sharon was a key figure in shaping the Middle East.

Long seen as an archetypal hawk, he was first elected prime minister in 2001. In his second term, Sharon made an about-face, pulling Israeli settlers and soldiers out of the occupied Gaza Strip last year.

The dramatic move, marking the first time Israel has dismantled settlements on land Palestinians want for a state, stirred a far-right revolt in his Likud party, leading him to form Kadima.

REUTERS SB ND1418

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