The power of patience
The recent series of successes by the prime minister - the release of Azzam Azzam, the victory in the Likud Central Committee, his rising popularity - is all the result of his "management," which is based on patience and demonstrating that he keeps his cool in crises. After months in which he appeared to be someone not likely to survive to execute his disengagement plan, Sharon now is perceived as a leader who cannot be replaced, the only person who can evacuate settlements and create a political breakthrough. That's how he is being treated in Washington, Cairo, Brussels and, according to the polls, at home. At least until the next crisis.
That patience is not Sharon's natural inclination. He apparently acquired it over his long years in politics. In his book "Bridgehead" (Rosh Gesher), journalist Uri Dan wrote about his experiences in Maj. Gen. Sharon's unit during the Yom Kippur War. This is how he described the first day: "Attack. Attack. That is the thought that completely fills Arik's entire being, non-stop for the last 20 hours. Ever since the war broke out."
Sharon of today wouldn't behave that way. He would wait until his foe is tired before going on the attack.
This is Sharon's leadership style: to wait for the other forces to line up to his advantage and for his rivals to use up their strength, until his position is accepted for lack of an alternative. That's how he brought Azzam Azzam home. When he presented Azzam's release as a condition for allowing Egypt to participate in the political process, Sharon sounded like the biggest peace-rejectionist of all, presenting the Arabs with extreme and strange demands. But the trick worked.
That's how he won in the Likud Central Committee, which approved Labor joining the coalition. The same body that delivered a painful loss to him in the summer now accepted Sharon's proposal, when it understood that otherwise there would be elections. That is how he waited until the last minute before firing master-rebel Uzi Landau from the government - waiting until firing Landau would be greeted with silence in the Likud.
Throughout the political crisis, Sharon and his aides insisted there is no way that Labor would not be in the coalition. The prime minister constantly reiterated that going to elections was entirely up to him and that there was no reason to feel pressured.
In the Likud they asked why he wasted the Knesset's summer recess and did not use it to negotiate with United Torah Judaism. Sharon ignored the complaints and bought UTJ's support at a bargain price. It's true he lost his loyal partner Yosef Lapid, but in his office they were already claiming that the alliance was a weak one, saying "Arik liked Shinui very much, but he loves himself more."
On the way he plucked bonuses like ripe fruits: The National Religious Party quit the government and evaporated as a factor, and Shimon Peres conceded the foreign ministry portfolio and now wants to join the government from a weaker position.
Sharon's delaying tactics have their disadvantages, like in the case of the separation fence, which the premier was belatedly forced to build, and where the lost time led to delays in the project and political losses on the international front. His decision to quit Gaza was also made belatedly, but stretching the timetable seems logical in retrospect. It enabled him to enlist domestic and international support and to weaken its political opponents. Sharon gambled that George W. Bush would win the elections, and meanwhile Yasser Arafat died, and the political arena is the most convenient it has been for Israel in all four years of the intifada.
Sharon is not a brilliant strategist. His advantages are in his ability to identify the weaknesses of his rivals, exploit tactical opportunities, absorb losses and recover, and show discipline in dealing with the media. His ability to keep silent and not respond to every event the way his predecessors did has been and remains a political asset that Sharon benefited from, particularly during the investigations against him. And those who forgot the alternatives to his leadership could see the two self-declared heirs apparent, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, slipping and falling in failed comeback attempts, one in front of the cameras and the other in front of the microphones.