It's dusk at Ariela Arabians and quiet, except for the neighing of horses and the clicking of dozens of sprinklers as they water the green pastures where the horses have grazed all day. All 18 are stabled for the night in their first-class accommodations, the equivalent of the equine penthouse suite.
This world-class breeding stable, or stud, is a swanky operation from halter to hay. The horses at Ariela Arabians have been washed and brushed and anointed with special creams.
Chen Kedar, the general manager of the stud in Moshav B'nai Zion, asks one of the handlers to bring a horse out into the paddock: a four-month-old colt named Al Hadiya.
Al Hadiya bolts and trots and canters, pleased for one more chance to stretch his skinny legs before nightfall. As he canters it seems that, for an instant, all four legs are suspended in air. He is nothing short of a vision of grace and beauty.
"We sold 50 percent of him to another Israeli breeder when he was four days old," she says. Several other horse breeders have stopped by to visit. They watch the colt with pleasure.
"Loving these horses is like a disease with no cure," says Udi Benyamini, not taking his eyes off the colt. Benyamini, the owner of a metal workshop, works hard to support his Arabian horse hobby. "The fantasy of every breeder is to breed the dream horse," he says. "To see a horse run free makes me feel as if I'm also free and happy."
There are 10 large breeding studs in Israel, and Ariela Arabians, owned by businessman Eitan Wertheimer, is the most important. During the past 10 years this world-class breeding stud almost single-handedly catapulted the quality of the Israeli herd.
"When I saw the beauty, charisma and charming personality of these animals, I realized the Arabian horse was a living ambassador for peace between nations, the perfect way to facilitate positive international communications," says Wertheimer.
One of Wertheimer's mares, Loubna, was named 2004 World Champion Mare. She was shown five times in 2004 and remained undefeated. Loubna is the daughter of Imperial Imdal, a stallion leased from the US for four breeding seasons by Wertheimer in 1994.
"His progeny took over the Israeli herd and in a short period we fast forwarded about 20 years," says Kedar. "Ten years ago, the ruler of Qatar sent two of his best mares to breed with this stallion."
Imperial Imdal's son, Laheeb, was reserve European champion. Just this past month, Galilea, Laheeb's daughter, won the 2005 Polish National Championship show. Last year it was her half-sister, Amira, who took the prize.
In the past few years, unnoticed by the local press, Israeli-bred Arabian horses with pedigrees that go back 20 generations have astonished judges in important international horse shows.
"Last year, for the first time, an Israeli horse snatched the world championship from horses owned by royalty and European and American millionaires," says Micah Regev, chairman of the Israeli Arab Horse Society.
In Europe's All Nations Cup last year, sponsored by the Sultan of Oman, three out of four champions were Israeli horses, Regev says. This, despite the fact that Israel has only about 3,000 purebred Arabians, compared to 30,000 in Germany or 50,000 in the United States.
In a recent listing of the most productive stallions for the 2004 breeding season released by the German Arab Horse Society, three of the top 20 were Israeli-bred progeny. As a result of this astonishing accomplishment, Israeli stallions are in demand by breeding farms in Europe and the US.
Raymond Mazzei, a California breeder and an internationally known judge of Arabian horses, says he's impressed by Israel's accomplishments.
"Israel is certainly on the map," he said in a telephone interview. "Given the small number of horses they have, they're doing a great job. I'm impressed and I've judged horse shows everywhere in the world, including two in Israel. The judges all agreed that there are some unusual horses in Israel. The breeders are an open-minded and intelligent group and are careful in trying to improve their blood stock."
Christina Wale, a Swedish expert who last week judged at the so-called Egyptian Arabian Event Competition that took place in Kibbutz Netzer Sereni, agrees.
"It's amazing that Israel can produce horses of such quality, given the size of the country and the fact that they started from scratch."
Kedar says Israel's accomplishments are "incredible when you consider the astronomical amounts of money invested in horses in the Arab world."
The Israeli Arab Horse Society is a success in more far-reaching ways as well. Since it was established in 1977 by the IDF's former chief of General Staff, Haim Bar-Lev, it has made friends of Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druse. There are more than 2,500 breeders in Israel and they ride together, attend each other's weddings and visit each other's homes.
"At our meetings or our group rides, you can find a Beduin who came from far away and perhaps has never met a Jew socially, and he might be riding right next to a Jewish member of high society, a man of the world. If there's some sort of a blood connection between their two horses, they will talk for hours and keep in touch," says Regev. "I hear a lot of the Arabs say that they never had an opportunity to meet Jews on a social level. We become one big family."
"When I go to a horse show, I don't know who is a Jew and who is an Arab. I have friends among the Jewish horse breeders and I really don't know anything about their political opinions," says attorney Nasser Darawshe.
Nasser's cousin Rashid Darawshe, of the village of Iksal, tells the story of how he was transporting one of his horses when his car broke down at Golani Junction.
"I called my friend Dani Oren from Kfar Kish. He told me he wasn't home but that his wife would come with a horse caravan and help me out. Within 20 minutes she arrived and took my horse to their stable. If he would call me in the middle of the night, I would do the same for him."
That reminds Tzviah Idan of how she broke down in the same place three years earlier while returning from the national horse show.
"I have any number of Arab friends I can call who would come to make sure I would get home safely," she says. "Friends from the village of Taiba spent three hours ferrying my horses back home."
When she wasn't feeling well for several weeks and had no help, Idan says, "a few Israeli Muslim friends came to help me feed the horses."
Israeli breeders even correspond and maintain friendships with their counterparts around the world, including those in Arab countries. Kedar says she was among the first Israelis to enter Qatar in 1996 on an Israeli passport. Regev's horse, Imperial Kitana, has a full sister in Qatar, a mother in America and a son in Germany.
The Ariela Arabians Web site receives many hits from horse lovers in Arab countries, too. Idan has friends among Jordanian horse breeders including Princess Alia, the daughter of the late King Hussein, who runs the royal stables and is an international horse show judge. Accompanied by Israeli Arab friends, Idan even visits Palestinian horse breeders in the West Bank.
"In the end, it will be the Arabian horse that will bring peace to this region," says Idan, whose own stud in Moshav Hayogev neighbors the ancient stables in Megiddo that are reputed to have housed King Solomon's famed Arabians.
"The minute there are horses involved, there is a bridge to peace," says Kedar. "I have visited several Arab countries, and the warm welcome I receive because of our common interest in horses is astounding. People who normally would have nothing in common find that they can talk for hours. It's a different world."
"For the wealthy around the world, Arabians have become rare collector's items much like fine paintings or antiques, with people willing to invest almost any sum of money to have the most beautiful and most accomplished horse," adds Regev. "Prices of horses can go as high as a million dollars. In the past few years the royal houses of Qatar and Dubai have been paying astronomical prices for champion Arabians, trying to bring the best horses back home to the desert."
Their refusal since the Intifada to buy Israeli horses may have proved a boon for the Israeli herd, since the best horses have remained in the country.
Al Hadiya is proof.
"An exceptional horse is priceless, born every few generations if at all. We hope to make him a famous horse one day," says Kedar. "He looks promising. I can see that he's very good but they change a lot and only when they are six or seven years old do they get their final look."
Al Hadiya was off to a good start last week at the Egyptian Event, when the Swedish judge awarded him first place in competition against other colts born in 2005.
The colt's pedigree is impeccable. His father is Laheeb, and he has three highly accomplished brothers and a sister who took the Polish national championship a few weeks ago.
Today, Ariela Arabians maintains approximately 20-25 horses featuring the bloodlines of the pure Egyptian Arabian, a rare but highly prized strain comprising less than 2% of all Arabians. Each year, five to 10 foals are born at the farm, with some retained as future breeding prospects, while others go to new homes in Israel and throughout the world.
"Breeding horses is like making good wine," says Kedar. "You get the best ingredients, mix them together and hope but you never know what you're going to get. For 11 months you hope and dream.
"Only once in every 10 years will a colt be born that is extraordinary," she says. "It's not enough to be beautiful. A horse must also have a certain attitude, personality and confidence."
Selling some colts and leasing the stallions to foreign studs helps keep Ariela Arabians afloat, says Kedar. But she dismisses the idea that there is money to be made in raising Arabians.
"You cannot gallop all the way to the bank. It's a very expensive hobby and you need to invest a lot of money in it. People do it because they love the horses and want to preserve this beautiful and ancient breed."
The perfect Arabian specimen has a small head with refined features, a characteristic dished profile with prominent black eyes and flaring nostrils. The mouth should be small and delicate enough to drink from a teacup. The network of veins is close to the horse's surface, a quality developed in the desert to keep the animal cool in the punishing heat. Whenever the horse moves, his tail shoots up, giving the horse a look of pride. The Arabian's broad chest, short but strong back, and sloped shoulder give him power and a gait that makes him look like he's floating.
Arabians cannot be treated with force, says Kedar.
"You need to get inside their head and understand them," she says. "If you use force on animals bred for hundreds of years to be war horses, they will wage war with you. You can't own them. You can befriend them. Loving these horses if it's in your heart, you will never lose the passion."
Passion is evident in the argument that is stirring in the living room of Rashid Darawshe, in Iksal. After several cups of Turkish coffee, an Arab, a Jew and a Druse are discussing the noble Arabian, the oldest horse breed known to man created, according to Beduin legend, from a handful of south wind.
His cousin Nasser is arguing that Arabians should not be bred for beauty but to preserve the hardy qualities that enabled them to survive the desert.
"It's our privilege to be the patrons of this magnificent animal," he says. "This horse was bred by nature to cover maximum ground with minimum effort in the harsh desert. Now they are breeding him to be a beautiful statue and win beauty pageants," he says.
"But we're no longer in the desert," answers Hamud Hamudly, a Druse from the village of Yarka.
"He's the ultimate war horse, able to stand 55 degrees in the shade and minus 5 degrees at night," says Nasser.
"Yes, but conditions have changed," retorts Hamudly.
Idan jumps in, agreeing that the key role for today's breeders is preservation of the bloodline.
On the mantle of Rashid Darawshe's living room rests a photograph of his grandson with a horse. His sons are expert riders. His father and grandfather kept Arabians.
"This house eats, breathes, thinks horses around the clock," says Hamudly.
So, after clearing away the coffee that he and his guests have drunk, Darawshe takes his visitors outside to provide an even better treat than talking about horses. One by one, with pride and love, he shows them his prize possessions. The most prized is three-and-a-half-year-old Sharif Pasha, whom Darawshe bought for a good price as a sickly colt but became the Israeli juniors champion last November.
"One day, I hope to make him world champion, insh'allah," he says.
"A love for horses is the last bastion of normalcy and balance left in this country," says Nasser Darawshe. "The only pure, clean place of sanity."
Darawshe's face is flushed following an impassioned monologue on the history and qualities of the Arabian, even quoting ancient texts and poetry. Darawshe believes the Arabian horse to be so loyal that he lets his two-year-old daughter, Tasneem, play with the horse's legs.
"He would never harm her," he says.