The heavy scents of bougainvillaea and manure mingle in the hot afternoon air at Shikmim Farm. Ariel Sharon pulls down the brim of his black Australian bush hat--a Jewish Crocodile Dundee. On his thick fingers, he is counting off the names his political enemies hurl at him: "Hard-liner. Extremist. Rightist. War criminal." His 1,500 acres on the edge of the Negev Desert is one of the few private farms in Israel and a refuge from the controversy that has followed him through 55 years in the military and in politics. Sharon, 72, the leader of Israel's right-wing Likud Party, leans his portly frame against a metal pen, and two dozen startled Awassi sheep suddenly flee across the straw. Laughing, Sharon says, "Even the sheep are afraid of me."
It is not only the sheep who are unnerved. In the eyes of many, it was Sharon who touched off the Holy Land's latest crisis when he visited the Temple Mount--Arabs call it Haram al-Sharif--in September, infuriating Palestinians and triggering a new intifadeh. The visit set off speculation: Did Sharon know what would happen in reaction to the visit? Did he plan the trip as a way to begin a push for power? Does the old cowboy feel any remorse about what happened in the violent weeks after his stroll? If he does, he hasn't been showing it.
What he has been showing is his famous attraction to center stage. Amid the latest violence, Israel's opposition Shas Party gave Prime Minister Ehud Barak a one-month "umbrella" of political support, a temporary reprieve from domestic political pressure. But next week that umbrella is set to close, and Barak must figure out how to hold his government together. He has two choices: cut a deal with the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party or swallow hard and hold hands with Sharon. It will very probably be Sharon's last bid for power--the final attempt of a legendary general to grab his country's highest office. If his sheep are scared, they have reason. Sharon has shown a willingness to sacrifice to get what he wants.
It is worth stopping for a moment to look at Sharon as more than just the one-dimensional stereotype he has become: the hard-line former Defense Minister who led Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and still refuses to shake Yasser Arafat's hand. For starters, no one calls him Ariel, Hebrew for lion. He is known universally in Israel by his nickname, Arik. And though he packs a lot of weight on his shortish frame these days, he was once a slightly bearish but, in some circles, sexy military hero. A photo of him from the 1973 October War shows him standing next to Israel's Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, both with the satisfied grins of men doing what they were made to do. And something else: Sharon's head is bandaged, a nice counterpoint to Dayan's patched eye and a reminder that here were two men ready to bleed for their young country. In private, he is a fan of violin music, known as a generous host with a quick wit. But in the end, to most Israelis, Sharon is a hard man, a man for hard times.