JERUSALEM — He had been dying a very long time, people said. Still, when the end came for Ariel Sharon, Israelis had a lot of emotion left.
“He was from the old generation. He was a big man, and bigger than life, Israeli to the core,” said Avi Green, a retired municipal worker here who had just heard the news.
Out of the public eye for eight years, lying comatose in a hospital bed since a debilitating stroke at the height of his political power in 2006, the former army general and prime minister remained a controversial figure in Israel, his life and times perennial subjects of debate.
In recent weeks, as Sharon’s doctors provided daily assessments of his health, Israeli newspapers, television and radio stepped up their efforts to define his legacy.
At a news conference Saturday outside the Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv where Sharon died, his son Gilad Sharon told reporters that even at the end, his father was managing his own narrative. “He passed when he decided it was time to go,” he said.
Known as Arik — and called by his nickname, “the Bulldozer,” in the media, for his once oversize bulk and his forceful will — Sharon was celebrated in death by his country and world leaders.
“I will never forget meeting with this big bear of a man when he became prime minister as he sought to bend the course of history toward peace, even as it meant testing the patience of his own longtime supporters and the limits of his own lifelong convictions,” said Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who is engaged in his own mission to help Israelis and Palestinians resolve their old conflict.
President Obama expressed condolences to Sharon’s family and compatriots on the loss of a leader he said had “dedicated his life to the state of Israel.”
“As Israel says goodbye to Prime Minister Sharon, we join with the Israeli people in honoring his commitment to his country,” Obama said.
British Prime Minister David Cameron called Sharon “one of the most significant figures in Israeli history” who as prime minister “took brave and controversial decisions in pursuit of peace, before he was so tragically incapacitated.”
As defense minister, Sharon was called a war criminal by some after Phalangist Christians in 1982 wiped out Palestinians in refugee camps in Lebanon as Israeli forces stood by.
“His passing is another grim reminder that years of virtual impunity for rights abuses have done nothing to bring Israeli-Palestinian peace any closer,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director of Human Rights Watch.
But as prime minister, Sharon led Israel’s unilateral disengagement in 2005 from the Gaza Strip, uprooting some 8,000 Jewish settlers from the coastal enclave.
Sharon’s body will lie in state in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, beginning Sunday. World leaders are expected to attend his memorial service Monday, with Vice President Biden representing the United States. Sharon will be buried at his farm in southern Israel in a more private service.
“They say that old soldiers never really die, they fade away,” said Israel’s justice minister, Tzipi Livni, who is Israel’s lead negotiator in the current peace talks.
“Arik faded away eight years ago and now has finally left us. Even when he was prime minister he was a brave warrior, commander, leader and farmer whose feet were deeply planted in the soil of the land of Israel,” Livni said. “In that large body of his beat a Jewish soul that cared for the Jewish people around the world.”
Israeli President Shimon Peres said: “Arik was a brave soldier and a daring leader who loved his nation and his nation loved him. He was one of Israel's great protectors and most important architects, who knew no fear and certainly never feared vision.”