US officials said Thursday that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's grave illness does not necessarily mean the fitful Middle East peace process is in jeopardy, but they steered clear of predicting what would happen next.
Officials said privately that they assumed Sharon had left the political stage, and that the era of politics and peacemaking he dominated was over. It will take time to sort out both Israel's political future and the US response, said the officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of Sharon's precarious health.
Publicly, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice set the tone in Washington, praising Sharon as "a man of enormous courage," and offering prayers for his recovery.
"I think that's the appropriate thing at this time because he is a huge and gigantic figure in Israeli politics and has turned out to be [the same] in the entire Middle East and in the world," Rice told reporters.
At the White House, press secretary Scott McClellan would not directly answer questions about the impact of Sharon's stroke on the Middle East peace process, saying only that administration officials were staying in touch with Israel and praying for his recovery.