Israeli officials and international dignitaries bid farewell to the late Ariel Sharon at a state ceremony Monday, remembering the controversial former prime minister as a fearless warrior and bold leader who devoted his life to protecting his country’s security.
US Vice-President Joe Biden and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair headed the long list of visitors who attended the ceremony outside Israel’s parliament building. Later Monday, Sharon’s body was to be buried at his farm in southern Israel.
“Arik was a man of the land,” President Shimon Peres, a longtime friend and sometimes rival of Sharon, said in his eulogy. “He defended this land like a lion and he taught its children to swing a scythe. He was a military legend in his lifetime and then turned his gaze to the day Israel would dwell in safety, when our children would return to our borders and peace would grace the Promised Land.”
Sharon died Saturday, eight years after a devastating stroke left him in a coma from which he never recovered. He was 85. One of Israel’s greatest and most divisive figures, Sharon rose through the ranks of the military, moving into politics and overcoming scandal and controversy to become prime minister in his final years. He spent most of his life battling Arab enemies and promoting Jewish settlement on war-won lands.
His backers called him a war hero. His detractors, first and foremost the Palestinians, considered him a war criminal and held him responsible for years of bloodshed. The speakers at Monday’s ceremony largely glossed over the controversy that surrounded Sharon, and instead focused on his leadership and personality.
“I didn’t always agree with Arik and he didn’t always agree with me,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who resigned from Sharon’s government to protest the Gaza withdrawal. Nonetheless, he called Sharon “one of the big warriors” for the nation of Israel.
In a heartfelt address, Biden talked about a decades-long friendship with Sharon, saying the death felt “like a death in the family”. “He was indomitable,” Biden said. “But like all historic leaders, all real leaders, he had a north star that guided him,’’ Biden said.