On Sunday night, just for a couple of hours, we saw how a high precision machine can go out of order when an unexpected spanner is thrown into the works.
The Ariel Sharon press machine, the most efficient spin factory ever seen in Israeli politics, is built on advance planning, anticipating every eventuality and leaving nothing to chance. But for those critical minutes, when the prime minister's convoy u-turned on the Tel Aviv highway back to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem and Sharon's press handlers had taken an early evening off, they ran into one scenario which hadn't been planned for. On Monday morning, Sharon's normally suave press secretary, Assi Shariv admitted on IDF Radio that he learned of the emergency from the report on Channel Two.
If anyone is still worried about the stability of Israel's democracy, Sharon's minor stroke served as a reminder that we still live in an open society with a free press.
In all dictatorships, and quite a few democracies, the leader's health is a matter of state security. If he needs to be taken suddenly to hospital, it's done under a cloak of secrecy and the press are gagged.
Israeli television viewers on the other hand already knew that something was wrong with their prime minister when he was still being rushed into the trauma unit. For the next hour or so, no official statement was released and conflicting rumors abounded about whether Sharon had lost consciousness and how critical his condition was.
A year-and-a-half ago, Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak was hospitalized and when his condition deteriorated he was flown to Germany for special treatment. For a couple of hours, traffic on the streets of Cairo was brought to a stand-still and helicopters were buzzing low in the sky. Veteran reporters observed that it seemed as if a coup d'etat was in the air. The Egyptian press was muzzled and the man on the street was convinced that Mubarak was at death's door.
It took the regime a week to realize that in order to quell rumors, something drastic was needed. A film crew was sent to the German hospital and a grouchy Mubarak, used to appearing coiffed and in a well-cut suit gave an interview in a dressing gown from his hospital bedroom.
The Sharon spin team needed only a couple of hours to return to its senses. Strategic advisor Lior Horev was already calling up reporters by ten in the evening explaining that, contrary to what analysts were saying, Sharon's minor stroke wouldn't hurt Kadima's chances in the polls. Instead Horev claimed, it would cause an outpouring of public empathy towards Sharon.
But the media coup de grace was just before midnight, when the PM himself, fresh from his MRI scan, made a quick round of personal calls to senior reporters on the big papers and TV channels, just in time to make the next morning's editions.
Even the most seasoned diplomatic correspondent has trouble keeping cool under such a charm offensive. Channel One's Ayalla Hasson's big smile of relief on screen said it all.
The Sharon juggernaut was back on the road.