JERUSALEM (JTA) — Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at his public funeral was remembered as a man of courage and strength on the battlefield and in the political arena.
“Sharon was a complex man who lived in complex times in a complex neighborhood,” U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said during the memorial ceremony Monday at the Knesset plaza in Jerusalem.
Sharon, said Biden, “engendered strong opinions. But like all historic leaders, he had a North Star that guided him. The North Star which he never — in my observation — deviated from. His North Star was the survival of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. ”
Biden was among some 1,000 guests who attended the public funeral, including Knesset members, Cabinet ministers, military leaders and 21 delegations from other countries.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, now the ambassador of the Mideast diplomatic Quartet, recalled that Sharon was not comfortable in formal meetings, tending to repeat himself or read from prepared texts. Blair said that when Sharon accepted an invitation to his home for dinner, he saw “a different Arik — warmhearted, humorous and charming, and passionate.”
Blair said that despite agreeing to the road map for peace, evacuating Gaza settlements and forming the centrist Kadima Party, Sharon’s “strategic goal never wavered: [Israel] had to be protected for future generations. When that meant fighting, he fought. When that meant making peace, he sought peace with the same iron determination.”
Israeli President Shimon Peres called Sharon “a friend, a leader, a military chief.”
He added, “Arik, you were a rare man. You turned the impossible into great opportunities. Rest in peace, great leader.”
Current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged in his eulogy that he and Sharon did not always agree with each other, but said they served in each other’s governments and supported each other “for Israel’s sake.”
Netanyahu called Sharon “one of the greatest generals that the Jewish people and the Israel Defense Forces had ever known.”
Shimon “Kacha” Kahaner, who fought alongside Sharon in the fabled Unit 101 in the 1950s, called Sharon, “my commander, teacher and rabbi.”
“Arik’s strength came from his love of the land and from what the land gave him. It was a two-way relationship,” Kahaner said.
Settler leader Ze’ev “Zambish” Hever, a close friend of Sharon, called Sharon a “hero of Israel” and said his last two years in office, referring to the expulsion of Jews from Gaza settlements, “painful and difficult.”
“The questions go unanswered. But as you commanded, we will not give up. We will not give up,” Hever said.
Sharon’s casket was taken to the Latrun Armored Corps Museum and Memorial, where 15 Israeli major generals saluted the late military and political leader. Some drivers stopped on the highway for the procession and got out of their cars to salute the military vehicle as it drove by; others filmed it on their cellphones.
The convoy then continued to Sharon’s Sycamore Ranch in the Negev for a private funeral attended by family and close friends, after which Sharon was buried next to his wife, Lily.