Ariel mayor Ron Nachman.
Ariel mayor Ron Nachman. Photo by Yuval Tebol
Text size

 

 

Bulbs

Bulbs were the only thing that stood between me and the orchid greenhouse of Ron Nachman, mayor of Ariel. Since the unfortunate affair of the bulbs six months ago, the greenhouse has been closed to the media, the mayor explained apologetically. The incident in short: Upon returning from the United States, Ron was apprehended at Ben-Gurion Airport with 20 orchid bulbs from rare species worth thousands of dollars in his luggage. The bulbs were confiscated, the narcotics division of the Customs Department opened an investigation, and Ron confessed.

"They wanted to catch me in a vicious way for something beautiful that I received as a gift. They obviously made a mountain out of a molehill," he says. "Personally, I'd be very glad to host you. The blooms right now are amazing. You'd be in shock. You'd see how a mayor starts his day at six in the morning looking over the greenhouse; it opens the soul. Either you do things seriously or you don't do them at all."

Ron has been working with orchids for 30 years. "Usually, this family of plants reproduces by means of all kinds of replications," he says. "I breed them. It's a challenge in this region. You have to overcome obstacles. I like challenges. But as for exposing the orchids, I'll have to consult with my lawyer. I know what the media's like."

I told him I wouldn't ask about the bulbs and that I'm not a crime writer. I actually have experience in writing about orchids. In fact, for some time now I've been trying to crack the secret of this flower's special charm, which makes people lose their minds. At any rate, in the months since the airport incident, new corruption scandals have grabbed the headlines. The bulbs story sounds almost quaint. I don't know whom Ron consulted with, but he soon got back to me and invited me to an Independence Day ceremony and a visit to the greenhouse.

Ceremony

Friday, 10 A.M. We passed through a checkpoint, arrived at Ariel and the sports center on Ha'atzmaut Street. This was where the local preschool's ceremony would be held, the first stop on a jam-packed day. A tour with Ron of his city, the bedrock of his existence - a wild ride, like a trip to an amusement park.

I wasn't planning to let fly a barrage of hard-hitting questions. It was difficult to get a word in edgewise anyway. I let Ron lead the way on this journey, and went with the flow as he veered from frustration to pride, to imagination, to hope, to the wild visions of war and utopia seething in his brain. "A day in the life" with Ron, a fascinating, endlessly energetic man, impervious to facts that don't mesh with his expansionist ambitions. He resolved as a young man to build a city in the territories, and 38 years later heads that city, which has tens of thousands of residents - living proof that his visions are not all pie in the sky.

Hundreds of people sat in the audience and about 300 preschoolers filled the floor. For Ron, it was the second ceremony of the day (not counting his daily orchid ritual in the morning ). "There wasn't enough room for everyone, so we did it in two shifts," says Ron, instructing the cameraman from the community television channel to film him.

Etti Cohen, who was in charge of the proceedings, explained that it was important to select a concept for the ceremony. This year's theme was Hatikva - Past, Present and Future. "The national anthem - the whole ceremony is built around it. You see the rationale here," Ron added, busy doling out handshakes and pats on the shoulder. "I used to know everybody here. I don't know everyone now, but everyone knows me - That's about 19,000 people, plus 11,000 students. Right now we have a critical mass of preschoolers here. Suddenly you see all the kids with their parents, a melting pot. It's very hard to build a city and even harder to build a community. I've been doing it for 32 years already. You must figure out a way to create an infrastructure, a common experience - that's the whole trick."

Ron explained that he operates according to a method he invented: "Vertically, it means getting involved in each issue from the foundation up to the roof; horizontally, it means taking a holistic approach in which the whole city is a single unit. We're all human beings. Equal opportunities. And despite the [settlement construction] freeze, I'm happy to see internal growth. Look at this," he says holding out an arm as "My Land of Israel is Beautiful and Blossoming" played. "My hair stands on end every time I see the children who are growing up here. I'm the only one from the city council who came to the ceremony, and then people are surprised that I've been elected six times in a row."

Ron turns out to be something of a serial name-dropper ("I was Kirschenbaum's manager ... I got Dan Shilon to retire at age 42 ..." and more ). He speaks with a surprising degree of candor, at once cognizant of and oblivious to the media. It's hard to believe that he's been in politics for decades. He looks young for his age, 68. "The secret is keeping active, creating something. To love making something out of nothing. I was a Likud MK, but I left the Knesset. Should I stand at a podium and debate or should I be out here, building this nation? What's more beautiful? What's more important?" A bearded, redheaded man with a skullcap, director of some fundraising project for the city, comes up to him and Ron hands him a check. The man thanks him, speaking with an American accent.

"And we have a country, and we have a city, and we have a home, in the Land of Israel ..." The children marched with flags and sang. With gold-colored cardboard doves dangling from their tiny wrists, they danced to the tune of "If I forget thee O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither." "The children sing like Shlomo Artzi," says Ron with emotion. "But it's important to instill discipline and coordination, from when they're very young throughout their whole lives."

"It's like the graduation parade from an officers' course," said his wife Dorit, who sat to his left. Ron ascended the stage, waving to everyone on the way as another tune played in his honor: "Happy birthday to the country, To you we've brought a gift ... Congratulations to you Israel, Your beauty we can only admire."

"You all know I'm crazy about that song," he began. "First off, I want to thank all the soldiers, men and women ... Our heroic army deserves a round of applause! And we hope that at last Gilad Shalit will soon return home ... These children here, they are the foundation; this is what the entire future of the State of Israel will be built upon ... I wish us all a year of quiet, of love and peace, of hope. A more loving, more supportive, more beautiful Israel. Happy holiday!"

He returned to his seat, between me and Dorit. We stood at attention while the flag was raised. "Three and four-year-olds singing 'Hatikva.' The hope of the State of Israel. Optimism. Radiating optimism. What you invest in them, you'll get back. These are my voters 20 years from now. Half the people here are immigrant families, Russians - How do you give them a sense of patriotism? You create something from nothing, so they'll identify, so they'll be part of this country, and enlist in elite units. I don't need all that jawing in the Knesset without getting to the root. Where inside the Green Line do you see something like this?"

Columns of male and female soldiers marched by and saluted. "Lookouts," said Ron. "The ones who make sure that the terrorists don't make it to you in Tel Aviv." A female soldier gave a speech: "It melts our hearts to see the children of Ariel singing, waving flags ... 'Flowers in the rifle barrel, and girls in the turret' (another popular song )."

"You see, in the settlements they want peace," Ron whispered. The ceremony continued; more songs were sung. "I was born for peace ... Peace, peace, peace on Israel ... Blue-and-white aren't just the colors of the flag, perhaps we'll know beautiful days of tranquillity ..."

Can we look forward to days of tranquillity?

"There's going to be a war," said Ron with assurance. "The Americans aren't going to do anything with Iran. Israel is going to stand alone."

Culture

The ceremony ended, and from there Ron made his way down Ha'atzmaut Street to a huge gray building at an advanced stage of construction, soon to be Ariel's cultural center. "I've been working on this for 21 years because of the freezes, a 550-seat auditorium. Noam Semel (head of the Cameri Theater ) told me he wants to do the first play here," says Ron. "Ariel is different from all the settlements around. We're like them, like Herzliya, exactly the same thing."

There is a difference.

"The difference is that we don't have rich people and they don't have immigrants. And despite the socioeconomic situation, we're doing things just as well. It's a lot more significant. We deserve a medal here. Fifty percent immigrants, fifty percent couples who have nowhere else [affordable] to live. And all without help from the government. But there's no whining here, no self-pity. We're a smart city, the whole city is computerized, there's WIFI. Now let's go to the Etgarim ("Challenges" ) Park."

Challenges

In the car, Ron keeps talking either about the freeze or about growth. Everything we see from the window reminds him of one or the other of the two opposite forces at work in his city, and put him into a kind of manic-depressive state with a half-frozen smile. "There was no law here. I brought the law here. We pay income tax, national insurance, all the laws relating to debt apply to us." He pointed out the wadi through which a sewage pipe was supposed to pass, but it was also subject to the freeze. "So there's no sewage line, no development, and there was supposed to be a mall there, and now the mall is stuck too. Barak is suffocating us. If we were some illegal outpost ... something outside the law. But you come here, you see a city, not a settlement. Why hurt a city?" he said angrily, as we kept racing toward the park that was built against all the odds. "This freeze is something that's impossible to keep to. It's crazy. We've got 17 factories on hold. It's completely irrational. If my daughter got married and wanted to come live here, she couldn't do it. Real estate has gone up a lot. Of course, this freeze isn't something new. It started in '92. Rabin froze us and we haven't come out of it since then.

"When I first established the city, I was the head of a garin (core settlement group ) in Tel Aviv. Sadat came to Israel. And then Arik Sharon called on us to settle here. I was 30 and I decided I was going to establish a city. I wrote about my vision - that if there wasn't massive settlement in the autonomous area, our fate would be like that of the settlements in Sinai. Peres, who was defense minister then, supported us. Then he was a hawk. Rabin was a dove.

"With all our troubles, we still managed to build Etgarim Park," he says as we enter the park - 400 dunams (he says ) filled with all the latest climbing equipment. American and Israeli counselors, all wearing helmets, had gathered around one of the installations - climbing, hanging off it, attached to ropes and nets. The Americans in Nike socks, the Israelis in Hike underwear, all engrossed in a training exercise, absorbing values, being strengthened. "High ropes, low ropes, a 750-meter zip-line - there's nothing like it anywhere in Israel. It all came from America, a $2 million donation from American Christians. You don't see this kind of thing anywhere else in Israel," Ron boasts.

At the Hanukkah ceremony, he gave a speech: "To donors Heather and Bruce Johnston, owners of the JH Ranch in northern California. The National Center for Leadership Development in Ariel was established with the aim of training and nurturing teens and young people to become the leaders of the future, shapers of public opinion ... I shared with Heather and Bruce my thoughts about establishing such a project in Israel, where every teenager would be given the chance to undergo the experience, to come to the recognition that values is not a dirty word and a leader is not a freyer [sucker], to use the slang term. I found partners for this 'madness' - Heather and Bruce supported the idea with great enthusiasm and started enlisting supporters and raising funds for the project .... In the Education Ministry I found people who shared my vision and together we developed a unique values-based educational model. The idea made waves and Wingate College, Oranim Seminar, Beit Berl, the Sport Administration and many more fine organizations joined us ..."

Now Ron gazes up at the three flags waving over the climbing apparatus - Israel, Ariel, the United States of America. "A U.S. flag here in the settlement," says Ron. "The ranch in California was based on a Christian model. Here we did a local adaptation: the Ten Commandments. Heather is the moving spirit behind the whole thing. It's her vision."

What is the vision?

"To create a better future," Ron replied, and then he called: "Heather, please come here."

A slender woman with a cool stare approaches us. Heather says that the ranch she and her husband run has enjoyed 30 years of success. "We trained one group last year," says Ron. "We want to get to the point where we have 40,000 youths here a year. Daily training, twice daily, and tents. And it's meant for everyone - Jews, Druze, Arabs, the disabled."

Shlomi, one of the counselors, explained about Apparatus 747, which you climb and then leap 10 meters in the air. Before the climb, they tell the story of David and Goliath, about overcoming huge fear, and encourage people to take that lesson to heart. And the Odyssey-Exodus from Egypt Apparatus - "It's 100 meters, this thing," Ron interrupts him. "It's like an IDF officers' course to lead a unit." The park will also have programs for fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, couples, bar mitzvahs.

"People leave here after a week with something different," says Heather, who is frequently on the Ariel-California routes and landed here most recently three weeks ago, with a delegation of about 50 people. She is staying at Ron's house.

"They're freezing us - Fine, now we'll bring thousands of youths here," Ron continues. "I received a demolition order on this last year. I said - Tell me, have you lost your minds? Mr. Ehud Barak is the master in Judea and Samaria, he gives the orders. I don't speak to him anymore, I've cut off contact with him. When the plan isn't complete then ostensibly there is no legal validity to this thing. The defense minister doesn't let the process be finished, the same Mr. Barak who hasn't paid a single visit here since assuming his post. They want us to stop living. The approval process is stuck. This park - Who is it hurting? How is it hurting peace?"

Country club

On a hill across from the park stands a row of closely built houses, all in the same style, "British cottage," according to the mayor. The Sheriff of Samaria gets in his car and zooms over to the next attraction, as a torrent of project ideas and memories comes spilling out of him in an emotional rush. Love knows no reason, ambition has no bounds. Before I'm able to fully get a handle on the park's legality, Ron is on to talking about Lake Kinneret: "I'm in favor of coexistence. All the Arab villages drink water from the Kinneret, I hooked them up." From there he jumps to a train that will cross all borders: "I want a train that will go from Tel Aviv to Rosh Ha'ayin, to Ariel, Nablus, Jenin, and hook up with the Valley Train ..."

What about checkpoints?

"With a train there are no checkpoints. The whole security issue is a lot simpler."

Perhaps you're not seeing the big picture?

"All those who look from afar at the Oslo idea, territory for peace - the concept doesn't work, there's a fundamental bug in the system. It's a disaster. The one who'll make peace is Ron Nachman with the neighbors. Was there peace before we were here? These things have always been here. Jordan occupied [the land], no one talked about that. Only since then is it called occupied territories. Why is it okay for the British to be in the Falklands and not okay for us to be in Ariel?"

What do you propose?

"Having a third party in the middle is not possible. Gaza will be annexed to Egypt. It's no problem to swallow a million and a half Gazans, who will travel south in the morning instead of north. I think that Jordan is the Palestinian state; the only way to safeguard security interests is through an agreement with the Jordanians. The area would be divided between Israel and Jordan. But Abdullah is afraid of the Palestinians. The whole 'two states for two nations' nonsense is Obama, an empty slogan. It's five states for two nations."

Who is in this quintet?

"Israel, Jordan, Judea and Samaria, Gaza-Hamastan and Ahmed Tibi, i.e., Israeli Arabs. That's five. This is the outcome of the [peace] process."

The tour of the area gives the impression that there is another emerging regional superpower: Guzi, "Hair at Another Level" - as billboards and bumper stickers proclaim all over town. "Guzi," says Ron, "Is this guy who was born here, a Yemenite who married a Russian and moved to Florida and built up a business there. I brought him back to Ariel, persuaded him to return home. I get my hair cut at Guzi, too. His salon is at the country club."

He stopped in the parking lot of the very impressive sports center, which he says was built a year and a half ago with an investment of NIS 40 million. The name Rosa Hearst graces the entrance. "She gave us $100 every year and then she left us half a million in her will." The complex is adorned with plaques noting the generous contributions of American donors who helped make this particular vision of Ron's a reality.

Ron: "Everything here is from donations, I didn't receive a cent from the state. Since we're in Samaria, all the establishment folks don't get involved here, there's a political boycott. So do I just sit down and say, 'Woe is me'? No! I travel to the United States and I raise funds. It's an amazing country club here, there's nothing like it anywhere in Israel."

From here, Ron took us to get a quick impression of the first Cafe Cafe coffee shop in Samaria. "Did you ever see a Cafe Cafe like this one?" he asked rhetorically. He went up to a young family sitting at a table with an interactive screen and amiably asked where they were from. "Keda," the father replied warily. "Where's that?" asked Ron. "One of the hilltops of the Shiloh bloc."

Ron smiled broadly and walked on. Later he said: "I'm not in favor of the outposts. Gain an outpost and lose a city. It hurts us. We need to strengthen what we have. The world doesn't understand - no one understands, they lump everything together. They see Ariel as part of the settler movement. The actual situation is completely different. There is such ignorance. They think we have horns. Naomi Chazan [president of the New Israel Fund] didn't get enough horns, it's the least of what she deserves."

At the salon, a man sat in a chair, mid-haircut. The famous and energetic hairdresser abandoned his work to welcome the journalists to his place of business and explain all the options available to customers: massage, Botox, hair coloring, anything to do with hair, including permanent hair removal. We surprised a woman lying on a table in one of the treatment rooms, but she affably humored the proprietor as he continued giving his tour. How has Guzi made such a name for himself in Samaria?

"I have a company that runs public relations for me," the hairdresser explained. While the customer waited for the rest of his haircut, the mayor sat down in front of the mirror and he and Guzi staged a haircut scene for the camera.

From there we went to the swimming pool. "Look at all the Russian folks sitting in the Jacuzzi, in the pool," Ron said. "Shulamit Aloni gave me a million shekels to form an orchestra with the Russians. Shulamit and Ora Namir recommended me for the Israel Prize. I'm very active in environmental projects. I also did a lot of projects with Yossi Sarid. We were friends, but now he makes me angry."

Ron urged me to go inside and take a look at the women's locker room. We split up and met on the other side, where there was a spacious, high-tech gym with rhythmic Russian music playing and a display window featuring all kinds of protein powders. A Russian trainer came to greet us and affirmed that "Ron does all the exercises that real men do."

Ron wanted to talk about a gym twice the size, nearly 1,000 meters, that would be added to the country club in the coming months. "There will be 6,000 members. There are already 4,400 and another 1,500 are on the waiting list. It's called the Sport and Community Center. It's a complex and a community center, like a JCC. It's all part of my method."

Zoo

We passed by a neighborhood of caravans. "These are the folks from Netzarim, 26 families with 8 to 10 people per caravan, the poor things." The Gush Katif evacuees don't really mix with the city's population, the mayor said somewhat indifferently and then went on to focus on his Ariel, a world that is all rosy, except for what's frozen and who's doing the freezing. "And on this side there's no sidewalk - another legacy of Rabin's freeze. This hill over here is frozen too; it's very bad. Rabin was our disaster, he and his discriminatory policy."

He shows some strategic points along the route: cement defensive walls (betonadot ) that Sharon brought in from Russia; the Laser Institute, with lasers that have something to do with Reagan's Star Wars plan; an advanced technology incubator that engineered a plant that makes pilotless aircraft; the university campus; the Atir Yeda industrial zone (until it was frozen ); and off in the distance the settlements of Yitzhar and Har Bracha.

We drove through a brand new neighborhood of houses. Arab laborers were working on some of the buildings. When we reached the end, Ron parked in a parking lot. We got out, stood on a lookout point, and gazed at a landscape that appeared untouched except for the winding separation fence, a firing post and some scattered horses. "This is the start of a zoo. There's going to be a zoo here," Ron suddenly declared. "Rabin put up a fence that barely stops chickens. And over there is the Barkan industrial zone. And that's Salfit, an Arab village. I used to get my hair cut there. Tommy Lapid used to laugh about how I wasn't afraid to put my neck under an Arab's knife. Salfit used to be called the Moscow of the territories. They were Communists, they went to Russia, they married Russian women. There's no contact with them anymore. And over there is Highway 5. Arafat invested in terror, then Israel invested in the road. And as you can see over here, these are neighborhoods that were frozen in '92. Bibi permitted building to continue in '96 and then Barak froze it again in '99. I feel sympathy from the present government; it has a different attitude, after I felt discriminated against for years."

What animals will the zoo have?

"Gazelles, ibexes, 120 animals, an animal preserve, 5 kilometers."

What about the Arabs?

"I'm not touching Arab territory."

Office

Ron is a tough nut to crack. His stories are fascinating, yet full of contradictions and gaps. He stopped to drop in briefly at the mayor's office, which, unlike the huge monstrosities he's building around the city, turned out to be a modest, one-story structure, more Histadrut than Oval Office. Inside there is an aquarium with dazzling fish that look you straight in the eye.

Ron pulled out a photo album commemorating the establishment of Ariel. "I'm fourth generation, my family founded Nes Tziona in 1883. In '77, I started Ariel with two tents. It's my life's work." He excitedly recalls those romantic early days, flipping ahead to a picture showing him as a young man with his family outside a tent, accompanied by an English inscription saying that there was no running water, and only a generator for electricity, but there was faith in the future.

"There were rocks and sand here," he says as he leafs through the album. "I received letters of approval from Peres and Weizmann; the Ministerial Committee for Settlement Affairs decided to approve [Ariel's] establishment. I'm not the one who decided. We were called upon by Moshe Dayan, the defense minister. Young people were exhorted to volunteer then. We waved two flags, one for security, the other for settlement. It's a terrible feeling that instead of being perceived as pioneers, as ones fulfilling the dream, as those leading the camp, they're trying to make us into a punching bag of occupation. If I had built this city in the Galilee ... " he trails off, pondering the joint decision to build Ariel and Carmiel.

"It suits Labor and Meretz to give priority to the Galilee and the Negev. What about us? We've been erased, Judea and Samaria. Is the Negev blooming? The Galilee? What came of this declaration from 18 years ago? Why does it always have to be the Galilee and the Negev? The same ritual, zimmerim [country lodging] in the Galilee. I want there to be zimmerim here, for you to come here to a zimmer in Ariel. Will you come? Bring the whole newspaper ..."

You're not Herzliya, you're not Amirim, I wanted to say, but instead I gazed at the walls covered with pictures of him together with VIPs: Schwarzenegger, Putin, Sharon, Barak in his chief of staff uniform, Bibi.

"There's outside pressure on Israel. I told Tony Blair that I want to be the vanguard of coexistence," he said. "The Obama administration is anti-Israel. He comes with a whole doctrine that was prepared beforehand, the Jews around him are all Peace Now people, American Peace Now, together with Israel's biggest enemies. They're in regular contact with Israeli leftists and journalists - Beilin, Barnea. Their plan didn't go anywhere. Beilin's platform didn't garner support in the elections, the Israeli public is smarter than that. So they go to Europe, to the United States, and they recruit support there to implement the Geneva plan.

"Obama wants to curry favor with the Muslim world at Israel's expense. His Jewish pals want to implement by coercion a policy that the Israeli voter did not consent to, and this is completely anti-democratic. I don't know if Obama really has any idea what Ariel is."

And then there is Ron's America. On the wall there is a framed shiny key to the city of Beverly Hills, and another gold key from the JH Ranch, complete with a quote from the book of Joshua and an English inscription: Given to Mayor Ron Nachman. Be strong and courageous for you shall lead these people to inherit the land.

Doesn't Ron find Heather a little scary? He insisted that he doesn't. Does he feel comfortable taking money from Evangelical Christians? She's here for her own reasons, after all. "That's her business," said Ron. Jesus Christ, redemption, the war of Gog and Magog - Ron's got other problems. "Anyone who gives money, who loves Israel, I support him. The money goes straight to the project."

Greenhouse

"I'm mayor all the time," Ron declared.

How many hours a day do you work?

"Yesterday, Heather's husband called at eleven at night, and I started this morning at five. Every morning I get up and read the newspapers."

We arrive at his home. The modest lower floor is filled with the intoxicating aroma of home cooking for the Friday night meal. Dorit was less forthcoming than her husband. Maybe she just worries that he talks too much, and wants to protect him. She said to tell Ron not to touch the meat, that she already turned it over, and then she disappeared, leaving us in the living room, surrounded by the turtle collection that seems to adorn every part of the house. A crystal turtle hiding behind an iron turtle. Ron went to the computer desk, which besides turtles, was surrounded with family photos - children, grandchildren, happy occasions. The computer is devoted completely to the greenhouse, continuously monitoring everything that is happening with the orchids, round the clock.

On the screen, a graphic proclaiming "Ron Nachman's Greenhouse" appeared with numerous figures: humidity rate, temperature, times. It all looks very complicated. The greenhouse itself, visible through glass sliding doors, is actually split in two, one small and basic, the second large and more advanced. Both brimmed with orchids. Outside are orchids hardy enough to survive a biblical climate. Ron led the way into the greenhouse, picked one of the countless blooms suspended from the ceiling - a loud pink orchid the color of an Yves Saint Laurent gown. "Haim Yavin was here and said it was very sexy. I asked him, 'Did you reach an orgasm?'"

He's not a freak for rare species. Nor is this a botanical garden meant for casual strolls. There are simply orchids upon orchids, densely crowded together, a surfeit that makes it practically impossible to see, to breathe, to move freely, to relax. That's not what Ron is after. It's the meticulous process, the monitoring, the supervision, the control, the breeding, the flourishing - that's what he's here for.

"I breed them, cut them, divide them so they'll increase. Every night I read about them, like the Torah. There's endless material: getting to know all the families, all the species. People who raise orchids are usually creative. It's no easy feat. It's no big thing to do this in Florida or Thailand. To grow this kind of plant on this mountain, however, you have to give them conditions similar to their lands of origin. I look after them, I examine the medical condition of each and every one - if there's rot or not, insects, pests. Every day at six in the morning I make sure that everything is okay. In the evening I check again, look at the information that's collected on the hothouse computer about what happened during the day. The sensors are working all the time. I told you that I like challenges. That's the best fun there is. There are people like my wife who collect turtles, but that's inert, it doesn't talk. Orchids are different. I love them, I talk to them, and they respond to you. There's a dialogue. Like the kindergartens ... I do a simulation of the growth. I love anything that blossoms."

This stubborn insistence on growing something in an unnatural environment, by force, somewhere it's not supposed to be. Does he see the greenhouse as a metaphor for Ariel?

"There is something to that. We took the 'Mountain of Death' as the villagers called it - What did the sheikh from the village next door say? Not even a donkey would agree to tread on these rocks. There was nothing here. And from out of the wilderness, with a pioneering spirit, atop a bare mountain where there is nothing, you build a city from scratch. It's a feeling of creating something from nothing.

"Ariel is not a settlement in the familiar sense of the term. It's something completely different. People are always saying occupation, occupation, the area is under PA rule, not Israel. Lod, Ramle, the German Colony, Wadi Nisnas, the Peres Center. When they say occupation it basically means conquest. Ramat Hasharon, that's the next stage after we finish with Judea and Samaria, that's Tibi's line. Since the PA was established, the Fatah people came and took over all the wealth at the expense of the villages. In the Arab villages, they want to be a part of Israel."

What's the next project?

"I want to create something like a utopia park here, for someone who comes to Ariel to go to Etgarim (Challenges Park ) and then take a mountain bike and ride to the animal preserve. But I'm talking about more than that, a park utopia with birds, orchids, turtles, like Costa Rica. It'll take about $10 million to do it."

On Sunday, Ron called to report that the orchids had had a tough weekend. "The air pressure pipe burst, and the pressure made it fly into the greenhouse, cutting off orchids, beating on the side of the greenhouse. I cut off the electricity. I was alarmed. I worked the whole day yesterday. I activated the compressor. Some of the flowers were cut, but they'll recover."

And then he started talking about a pilot that he and Shari Arison did together for the Essence of Life project, about changing patterns of behavior. "We're good friends, Shari and I. She said we're a smart city, she was very impressed. I appear in her book, 'Birth.' Like attracts like. Criminals are drawn to criminals. People who do good attract good. Sometimes I end up getting stabbed in the back, but in the long run it pays to be good. In a job like mine, where you're dealing with tens of thousands of people, and the relationship between voter and elected official, you can't fool the public all the time. It's a matter of credibility."

Later in the week, he flies to America, on tour, while his Blackberry keeps him connected to the greenhouse. Maybe he'll pave the way to his utopia. W