FOUR years after a massive stroke that has since rendered him unconscious, former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon now breathes unassisted. He lies motionless in a two-bed private room at the 18-bed Sheba Medical Centre, a long-term-care facility near Tel Aviv that specialises in the rehabilitation of comatose patients. A team of nurses keeps moving his body to prevent the onslaught of pressure sores, while an extra nurse is on duty 24 hours a day specifically tasked with monitoring him. Fed daily through a tube, Mr Sharon, now 81, was once famous for his substantial girth but now weighs around 50 kilograms. Every day he is visited by at least one of his two sons, Omri and Gilad, and at night he is fitted with an oxygen mask, more as a precaution than from necessity. Overall, caring for Mr Sharon costs Israeli taxpayers about $A400,000 a year. On odd occasions his eyelids will suddenly open, and can stay open for several hours - one of the more encouraging signs that keep those close to him hopeful that he might one day recover. But according to doctors familiar with Mr Sharon's condition, he has zero chance of recovery. ''His brain is about the size of a grapefruit,'' says a hospital manager who has had ongoing involvement with Mr Sharon's care, and who declined to be named. ''The part of the brain that keeps his body functioning, his vital organs, is intact, but beyond that there is nothing, just fluid. ''Our instinct is to provide hope and to say that because he is alive there is a chance he will wake up, but this is never going to happen.'' Whatever the prospects of recovery for Mr Sharon - who became prime minister early in 2001 and suffered a massive brain hemorrhage on January 4, 2006 - one thing has remained certain: his family will not consent to removing the feeding tubes. In the meantime, debate rages about his long-term legacy. Once a hero of the expansionist right, the former giant of Israeli military and political life is now regarded as a traitor by many in the settler movement, reviled as the man who drove Israel's withdrawal of 9000 Jewish settlers from the occupied Gaza Strip.