By Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times
JERUSALEM–Under skies dotted with scattered clouds and a blimp, Israeli and international leaders attended the state memorial ceremony held Monday for former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who died Saturday.
Draped in an Israeli flag and surrounded by wreaths, Sharon’s casket lay on a raised black platform in the wide, paved plaza of the Knesset, where he served from 1973 as a lawmaker, Cabinet member and prime minister until felled by a stroke eight years ago.
Israeli leaders, politicians and dignitaries in attendance, including Sharon’s friends and adversaries, offered a snapshot of the country’s political history. International leaders, including Vice President Joe Biden and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, were among the many foreign guests.
Israel’s chief military rabbi and cantor recited psalms and prayers before a series of eulogies were spoken.
President Shimon Peres, the country’s longest-serving public figure, eulogized the man who was his longtime colleague and friend since their first meeting more than half a century ago.
“You cultivated the land with your scythe, and defended it with your sword. Your fingerprints are on every diplomatic situation and every military outpost,” the president said of Sharon.
He described Sharon as a military legend in his lifetime who then “turned his gaze toward the day Israel would dwell in safety.” Peres bid farewell to “an exceptional soldier, a commander who knew how to win, a leader who breathed a dream.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid high tribute to Sharon’s singular contribution to the country’s military and security, linking it to the present. “He insisted on our right to defend ourselves so that we may live here securely. Today, too, we remain adamant on this right, which is a vital condition for our existence here and for the existence of peace.”
Netanyahu was one of Sharon’s political adversaries and strongly opposed his 2005 plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. “I did not always agree with Arik, nor did he always agree with me,” said Netanyahu, who, using Sharon’s commonly used nickname, described the late leader as a “practical, pragmatic man” with strong feelings for the Jewish state.
Israel will continue to fight terror and strive toward peace while maintaining its security at all times, including preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, Netanyahu said.
Biden recalled his many meetings with Sharon over 30 years, describing a powerfully built man who commanded a presence that filled the room.
Nodding to another nickname given to Sharon _ fondly by some, critical by others _ Biden said that “you immediately understood how he acquired … the nickname ‘bulldozer.’ He was indomitable.”
Sharon was a complex man who “engendered strong opinions” and differences of opinion with the U.S., Biden said. But like all historic leaders, the vice president added, Sharon was guided by his “north star,” the survival of Israel and the Jewish people.
In addition to his physical courage, Sharon possessed political courage, Biden said, referring to the decision to pull Israeli forces out of Gaza and remove thousands of Israeli settlers from their homes.
“I can’t think of a more difficult and controversial decision,” Biden said.
Blair, now the special envoy for the so-called Mideast quartet, described Sharon as “bold, unorthodox, unyielding” in everything he did from the battlefield to diplomacy.
Blair dismissed an oft-repeated notion that Sharon had changed from a man of war to a man of peace. His strategic objective and commitment to Israel never changed, and “when that meant fighting, he fought. When that meant making peace, he made peace,” Blair said.
Sharon’s family and confidants chose Marit Danon, the former prime minister’s close personal assistant, to speak on their behalf. Two additional lifelong comrades who spoke represented seminal chapters in Sharon’s life.
Shimon “Kacha” Kahaner served in Unit 101, a famed, if unruly, special commando unit established by Sharon in the 1950s to retaliate for attacks on Israelis and to prevent assualts, sometimes by questionable means.
The other was Zeev Chever, an active stalwart of the settler movement. He worked closely with Sharon, who during his time in government largely gave Israeli settlers a free hand in expanding their communities in Palestinian territories, particularly during the 1980s. Chever called Sharon “the father of the settlement enterprise.”
Following the ceremony, the military funeral procession began with members of the Knesset guard carrying the casket to an army command car, with Israel’s top army generals riding in the back.
The convoy left Jerusalem for Latroun, a battlefield memorial, with an army honor guard and salute before making its way to the burial site at Sharon’s Sycamore Ranch near Sderot, close to Gaza.
MCT Photo/Li Rui/Xinhua