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Monday, 13 February (43 days to election day)

Forget monitoring vital signs. Monitor talkbacks.

The moment that Ariel Sharon takes a turn for the worse, the messages flood in. Thankfully, the great majority are wishes that he might not suffer, or prayers for a miracle recovery.

It is a measure of the unbearable meanness of the Internet, however, that the first to arrive are almost always those who wish him ill, wish him hell, or alternatively, those who voice the hope that he will live on to suffer through endless rounds of new surgeries and unimaginable cutting-edge bio-tech tortures.

It is a measure of the unbearable, globalized meanness of our age, that you generally can't tell until the end of the letter whether the letter writer in question is a maniacal Palestinian - often resident in the Bay Area or the Rust Belt - or a foaming at the mouth settler wannabe - often writing from South Africa or Australia, or whether the war crime in question took place in Qibiya or Kfar Darom.

This time around, though, there was a whole new group, particularly evident on the Talkbacks of a competitive English Israel Website.

Within minutes of Ariel Sharon having been rushed to an operating theater for emergency abdominal surgery on a Sabbath morning, the debate was not should he die in pain or live in agony, but rather When Olmert Will Let Him Die for Maximal Electoral Advantage.

This group is clearly one of a number of what may be called Web Anthills, in which the members of a like-thinking e-clan instantaneously share the same take on a given issue.

In a sense, this is no conspiracy theory. Why not? Because, as far as the writers are concerned, (A.) It's no conspiracy, it's only Kadima, and (B.) It's no theory, because we all know it to be true.

The debate, which swirled while the operation was still in progress - an operation from which, hospital officials had cautioned, Sharon might well not emerge alive - offered a variety of dates for a state funeral, for maximum pro-Kadima effect.

One poster said that Kadima would deliberately keep Sharon in his vegetative state until a few days before the election - to minimize the "staleness" of the sympathy factor in keeping him alive until March 28. Then, the poster said, they will "pull the plug," to coincide with "massive tear-jerking television coverage," and world leaders attending a state funeral, all to Olmert's advantage.

Other talkback respondents voted for March 27, or other dates in between.

Mean or inappropriate as the letters may be, they still point to a valid political question, one that political commentators addressed at length this week:

What effect has Sharon's incapacitation had on the election race, and how might that influence change if the prime minister were to die?

A possible answer to the first question was hinted at during Army Radio's dawn news broadcast Sunday, when anchor Ronit Kfir noticed that there were barely six weeks left to the election.

"Only forty-four days left? That can't be. There's no campaign going on," she told the national radio audience.

Another indication came from a poll released on Sunday, which averaged in the results of all newspaper opinion surveys at the weekend. The most striking outcome was that the numbers, placing Kadima at 41 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, Labor at 20 and the Likud at 15-16, were the same figures as in a parallel survey compiled a month ago, just after it became clear that Sharon would not return to office.

Several senior political analysts were asked Sunday what the influence on the electorate would have been, had Sharon not survived the surgery on the Sabbath. Some of the answers, though considerably more judicious, bore an oblique resemblance to some of the Web posters.

"It's awful to talk about this, but there are politics and realpolitik involved, although among the Kadima people and Ariel Sharon's friends, these aren't the thoughts you sense they are thinking, rather, 'What can we do for him [the prime minister] now, so that this doesn't drag on for too long," said Ben Caspit of Maariv.

Still, according to Caspit, speaking on the radio Sunday, "In the end, we are all human beings, and when Sharon does go to the World of Truth, if and when, there will be two weeks of a 'festival' that will bring the entire world and its wife to land here, and in those two weeks, [Kadima] could rise from 40 to 50 seats, later sliding from 50 to 40, instead of sliding from 40 to 30.

In terms of picturing Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as a world leader, Caspit continued, "something like this could certainly 'upgrade' him, a conversation with Bush, a conversation with Mubarak, with the Russians, the French, the British."

Added Raviv Drucker of Channel 10 Television, "Why discuss the 'if and when,' let's talk about the here and now. It's clear that it's much harder to run a negative campaign [against Kadima] when things like this happen."

"'When everyone aims for unity after the death of a prime minister, how can I put up something else,'" Drucker quoted one non-Kadima campaign manager as saying.

Moreover, the Kadima campaign is built on tearing one more day off the calendar each day, Drucker said, "and this 'supplies' a few more days."

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Want Greater Israel? Vote for the leftKofi, Spielberg, and what's wrong with assassinationsThe New Anti-Senmitism, cartoon divisionYou, too, can deny the Holocaust