Thirty minutes south of here by helicopter is Ariel Sharon's farm. This is where the prime minister becomes the farmer he was in his youth and where he sits down on any available Friday for a marathon lunch with his fellow farmers and others. His son helps serve, his daughter-in-law clears the table, and the farmers talk of the damage the wolves have done to the ostrich flocks. This would seem like any other farm lunch were it not for the young men with immense weapons who keep an eye on everything. The farm produces meat, fruits and vegetables -- not to mention the surprising dream of a man who some would say never dreams at all.
The lunch is held in a huge packing shed. Two picnic tables are pushed together, and Sharon sits in the middle, waiting for his guests. It is jarring to find him there. I expected a greeting, an entourage, the obsequious shuffle of several aides -- and on the table, a procession of glasses for every type of beverage. But this is Israel and this is Sharon and so when the glasses are removed it is only because they have to be washed -- there are not enough of them. The farmers call him Arik, which is his nickname, and when his cell phone rings, which it does only once during the entire three-hour meal, Sharon reaches into his pocket and takes the call himself.
As usual, Israel is more or less at war. A suicide bomber had killed five people in the northern Israeli town of Hadera and the night before the lunch, Israel, as usual, had retaliated, killing in the Gaza Strip an important leader of the terrorist organization Islamic Jihad, which had claimed credit for the attack. As is often the case, some civilians were also killed in the Israeli retaliation. The pattern of attack and reprisal is old, familiar and seemingly senseless. But for Sharon, the principle is simple: No one gets away with killing Israelis. It is the essence of his foreign policy, which is his domestic policy, which is his military policy, which is the guiding principle of his life -- what he calls his "red line." Whatever he does, however he manages the so-called peace process, he will not risk "the blood of a single Israeli citizen." It is that simple.
Sharon made that remark in reference to Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority. He faults him for not disarming the various armed militias and terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip. "He will not do what he needs to do," Sharon told me. Others might want Sharon to ease up a bit, to take a chance with Abbas (whose good intentions are not questioned), but the prime minister will not gamble with Israeli lives. He has been at war with Arabs -- nations or terrorists -- all his life and, not to put too fine a point on it, he is no sentimentalist when it comes to his adversaries. When I asked Sharon why Syria continued to sponsor terrorism directed at Israel, he gave several reasons but concluded by saying simply that Arabs kill Israelis. Sharon joined the military at the age of 14. As far as he is concerned, this is the way it has always been.
Toward the end of the lunch, my group posed for pictures and I stood to Sharon's right: another unlikely metaphor. Over the years I have been unsparingly critical of him, but Sharon, the former paratrooper, has befuddled his critics. The adamant hard-liner, an architect of Israel's expansionist settlements policy, faced demographic reality and pulled Israel's settlements out of the Gaza Strip. That made him more popular in the country as a whole than in his own right-wing Likud Party. He smiles sphinx-like when asked about his new popularity with the political left. It is an old (77) man's wise acknowledgment that the wheel can turn yet again.
Still, for the moment no one in Israel can realistically challenge him. He sees himself as a latter-day Cincinnatus, the storied Roman farmer who dropped the plow to become dictator and returned to the farm once the crisis had passed. Others might trim their principles to remain in office, Sharon said, but not him. He lives by certain truisms and neither career nor ambition nor popularity can make him compromise. The way he tells it, he is just a farmer passing through politics and war, war and politics -- always yearning, he says, for the sweet smell of fresh hay and a peace he has never known.