Biden, Israelis bid farewell to Ariel Sharon

Israel’s political and military establishment, joined by Vice President Biden and former British prime minister Tony Blair, praised Ariel Sharon at a state memorial ceremony here Monday, lauding his warrior spirit and his turn toward peace — but also hinting at the longtime general’s pugnacious, sometimes reckless public style.

Biden, wearing a black suit and black skullcap, stood at the foot of Sharon’s flag-draped coffin to eulogize him as “a complex man” who “engendered strong opinions.”

He recalled meeting Sharon decades ago, as a young senator from Delaware, and being struck by the older man’s commanding presence. “You immediately understood how he acquired . . . the nickname ‘Bulldozer,’­ ” Biden said. “He was indomitable.”

“When a close-knit country like Israel, a country that has been tested as much as Israel, loses a man like Prime Minister Sharon, it doesn’t just feel like the loss of a leader, it feels like a death in the family,” Biden said.

[Read Biden’s full eulogy.]

Sharon died Saturday at 85, eight years after he suffered a massive stroke while serving as prime minister of Israel.

He was laid to rest Monday afternoon at Sycamore Farm, his beloved cattle ranch and wheat farm in the southern part of the country, just four miles from Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip, the territory that Sharon relinquished to the Palestinians in 2005.

An hour or so after the funeral, two rockets from Gaza were fired into southern Israel. They landed in open fields near the border fence. Later in the day, Israel’s air force retaliated, striking two targets in central and southern Gaza.

At the memorial, the eulogies were weighted with references to current events and Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s ongoing efforts to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Israeli singer Sarit Hadad, who also often sings in Arabic and has a following among Palestinians, sang the classic “We Are Both From the Same Village,” a song about a soldier remembering a friend lost in battle.

“As a minister and a prime minister, Sharon stood for our right to defend ourselves and live with security,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who resigned from Sharon’s government in 2005 to protest what he called the reckless decision to unilaterally withdraw Israeli settlers and troops from Gaza.

“I didn’t always agree with him,” Netanyahu said. “But we worked together for Israel’s security and economy.”

[Read Sharon’s obituary.]

Neither Netanyahu nor Israeli President Shimon Peres — a former political foe of Sharon’s — mentioned the most controversial parts of the late leader’s legacy: the Gaza withdrawal and the 1982 Lebanon war. An Israeli judicial commission found that Sharon bore “personal responsibility” for failing to protect Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps who were killed by the hundreds by Lebanese Christian militias during the Lebanon conflict.

“You cultivated the land with your scythe and defended it with your sword,” Peres said. “Your fingerprints are on every diplomatic situation and every military outpost. You took and implemented the difficult decisions.”

Blair, who heads the Middle East Quartet mediation group and is an actor in the ongoing peace talks, called Sharon “bold, unorthodox, unyielding,” a man of contradiction, “tough but shy,” who changed his positions, political parties and policies, who “could leave considerable debris in his wake.”

Blair conceded that his official meetings with Sharon were difficult, recalling exchanges in which he used Sharon’s nickname, “Arik.”

“He would read at length from notes, repeating and repeating Israel’s position,” Blair said. “ ‘Really, Arik,’ I would say. ‘I understand what you’re saying.’

“ ‘Okay,’ he would reply, and then pause. ‘But, just in case, I will say it again.’ ”

William Booth is The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Mexico, Los Angeles and Miami.
Ruth Eglash is a correspondent for The Washington Post based in Jerusalem. She was formerly a reporter and senior editor at the Jerusalem Post and freelanced for international media.
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