"You cannot defeat Jews," Israel's prime minister went on. "You can maneuver them. You maneuver them, they maneuver you. I would say it's endless maneuvers."
It is hard to imagine Mr. Sharon's own gambits at an end. Having outmaneuvered Jew and gentile, enemy and ally alike, Mr. Sharon at 77 was losing ground at this writing to the invincible opponent he had also cheated more than once. It should have surprised no one - though it did - that he was caught, in this struggle, in mid-maneuver. Having torn up the Jewish settlements he founded in the Gaza Strip, he had been on his way to tearing apart the right-wing party he founded, Likud, in favor of a new, centrist party that was going to do - well, it may be that only Mr. Sharon knew exactly what, and some wondered if even he did.
He almost certainly planned to pull some Israeli settlers out of parts of the West Bank, but how soon, and from which areas? Did he envision signing a peace agreement with the Palestinians from behind the West Bank barrier he mapped out? One that would provide them sovereignty in a viable state? Or did he want to cage the Palestinians in barricaded enclaves like Gaza? Its ends still unknown, its ultimate achievements still uncertain, one of the most audacious exercises of leadership in Israel's history came to an abrupt close at a moment of resounding ambiguity.
"We will never know the real answer," said Tzaly Reshef, a founder of the left-wing Israeli group Peace Now. He said that his own feelings about Mr. Sharon were mixed. "Some good friends who share my views remember only the last two years," he said. "I remember the whole history of Sharon."
"He didn't have a lot of limitations, moral or otherwise," Mr. Reshef said. Yet - partly because of those qualities - Mr. Reshef did not have mixed emotions about the loss of Mr. Sharon as a leader. "I think it is a big tragedy that we lose him now," he said. The same "power and personality," he said, that caused Mr. Sharon to command the bloody invasion of Lebanon in 1982 "could maybe have made him the savior of Israel in the next four years."
Maybe Mr. Sharon had confided all in his deputy prime minister, Ehud Olmert. Maybe, in a locked chest on the farm, he had squirreled away a map of his planned disposition of territory. But, Mr. Sharon being Mr. Sharon, no one could rule out another feint. Besides, the interplay of Israeli and Palestinian blows and posturing has proved resistant to fixed road maps of any one's devising; prospects for changing the pattern had come to rest more on the creative leadership of the brutal, cunning figure who just exited, stage center.
What Mr. Sharon might have done is a question of more than academic interest. Lacking his credentials, politicians who follow will compete for his legacy and so contest its interpretation. "Everybody's going to fight for the mantle of Ariel Sharon," said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "I think partly because he covered such a wide swath of the middle of Israeli politics there are going to be innumerable theories of what he might have done."
Israel has never fought a war without Ariel Sharon in the front lines or in command, or both. Even Israelis who held him responsible for the massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila during the Lebanon War or the deaths of Arab civilians during his commando raids of the 1950's trusted him to concede territory because they believed that, as he often said, he would never take a risk with their security.
As a leader, Mr. Sharon - his first name means "Lion of God" - was everything he seemed, and its opposite. He was blunt in speech and subtle in aim, sloppy in appearance and meticulous in preparation, grandfatherly in demeanor and ruthless in reality. In their 1973 study, "The Israeli Army," Edward Luttwak and Dan Horowitz concluded that he "concealed one of the finest tactical minds in the Army behind the carefully cultivated image of a simple fighting soldier."
It is the effort to conceal that is telling. His nickname, "the Bulldozer," reflected only his most obvious features - the fists, not the brain. He was underestimated even when he ran for prime minister five years ago, when potential opponents, including Benjamin Netanyahu, stood aside in the expectation that Mr. Sharon would keep the seat warm, quickly fall from power, and make a successor look good by comparison.
Those entangled by his tactics often came away revolted. "The biggest liar this side of the Mediterranean," the American diplomat Philip Habib, who on behalf of Ronald Reagan tried to end Israel's 1982 Lebanon invasion, said of Mr. Sharon, who was then defense minister. Mr. Sharon was a man of fixed ends - Israel's security, as he saw it, and its inextricable adjuncts, his own military and political success - and infinitely flexible means. That was the bitter lesson learned by Israeli settlers who moved into Gaza on his encouragement and out of it on his orders.
Mr. Sharon called his new party Kadima, or Forward, without ever saying just where it was headed. Both the indefatigable dove, Shimon Peres, and hawks like Shaul Mofaz, the defense minister, flocked to him. A poll released just before Mr. Sharon was stricken Wednesday showed Kadima crushing the established Likud and Labor Parties. Mr. Sharon had not even prepared a parliamentary list for elections, ranking his party leaders in order of importance. They must now sort it all out on their own.
Mr. Sharon was no mere blur, of course. He used ambiguity to hold the political center but he held that political center in order to shape it. He reversed the logic for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that was adopted by his predecessors Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak: While those prime ministers sought security through peace agreements, Mr. Sharon insisted, as he put it, that only security could bring peace. The Palestinians would have to lay down arms before negotiations could begin.
As a result, Israelis endorsed Mr. Sharon's conviction that the Palestinian leadership, unable or unwilling to crack down on militants, could not now be a peace partner. And so they overwhelmingly backed his approach of unilaterally setting Israel's boundaries, withdrawing from Gaza in what he assured voters was their own interest.
Palestinians and Mr. Sharon's left-wing critics said his approach was calculatedly self-fulfilling. In their eyes, his refusal to talk undermined Palestinian pragmatists, who needed negotiated achievements to build domestic support. To them, Israeli incursions and blockades crippled the very security forces that were supposed to act against terrorists. Mr. Sharon's unilateralism, they said, empowered militants, who pointed to it in arguing that the violence of the second intifada had achieved something that 10 years of negotiations never did - the evacuation of Israeli settlements.
Mr. Sharon was fairly clear about whether he saw this unilateralism leading to a peace agreement. He wanted an agreement, he said, provided the Palestinians could meet his demands for his security. His senior aides used to joke that, to do so, the Palestinians would have to become Swedes. For years, Mr. Sharon said he wanted a long-term interim agreement, a sort of standstill arrangement that would end the fighting, reduce the friction between the two peoples and help them, somehow, become comfortable with each other. Only after many years, he argued, would there be enough trust for real peace. In any final deal, he wanted to hold all of Jerusalem and Israel's biggest West Bank settlements.
Mr. Sharon liked to quote advice his mother gave him in the early 1980's, when he was negotiating with the Egyptians: "Do not trust them! You cannot trust a piece of paper!"
In that conversation at his farm, in the summer of 2004, Mr. Sharon cautioned, "Here, in this region here, declarations, speeches, words, are worthless." It was, he said, "an empire of lies." Yet even Mr. Reshef said Mr. Sharon would ultimately have been open to negotiating peace with the Palestinians, if they pulled themselves together.
Rather than words, Mr. Sharon believed in action, in land, and in history as he saw it, and he saw it all around him. That evening at his farm, he described riding through the terraced West Bank hills near the city of Ramallah. He would narrow his eyes, he said, to block out the electrical lines and imagine warriors of the ancient Israeli tribe of Benjamin "with spears, running there on those terraces."
Arabs, he added, did not build the terraces. "Those terraces are old Jewish terraces," he said.
Mr. Sharon has earned his own place in that glorious, sad story, and in the debate that may never die.