JERUSALEM (AP) — Israelis from all walks of life flocked to parliament Sunday to catch a glimpse of Ariel Sharon‘s coffin and pay their final respects to the iconic former prime minister and general.
A stream of visitors ranging from former army comrades to political allies to citizens who only knew him from afar remembered Sharon as a decisive leader, for better or for worse, and one of the final heroes of Israel’s founding generation.
“Words escape me. He was just a man who was larger than life,” said a choked-up Shlomo Mann, 68, who served under Sharon’s command in the 1973 Mideast war. “Those who didn’t know him from up close can’t truly understand what a legend he was. There will never be anyone else like him.”
The 85-year-old Sharon died Saturday eight years after a devastating stroke left him in a coma.
In a career that stretched across much of Israel’s 65-year existence, his life was closely intertwined with the country’s history. He was a leader known for his exploits on the battlefield, masterminding Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, building Jewish settlements on war-won land and then, late in life, destroying some that he deemed no longer useful when he withdrew from the Gaza Strip.
As one of Israel’s most famous generals, the man known as “Arik” was renowned for bold tactics and an occasional refusal to obey orders. To his supporters, he was a war hero; to his critics, a war criminal.
As prime minister late in life, he was embraced by the public as a grandfatherly figure who provided stability in times of turmoil.
“Arik was, first and foremost, a warrior and a commander, among the Jewish people’s greatest generals in the current era and throughout its history,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a fierce political rival of Sharon in the Likud Party, said Sunday. “I think he represents the generation of Jewish warriors that arose for our people upon the resumption of our independence.”
President Shimon Peres — a lifelong friend and rival — and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who succeeded Sharon after the 2006 stroke, were among those who paused before the closed flag-draped coffin displayed in a plaza in front of the Knesset and surrounded by an honor guard. But the event was mostly an occasion for everyday Israelis to honor him.
With tears streaking behind dark sunglasses, 44-year-old Anat Amir said she felt compelled to bid farewell.
“These are tears of pain and parting but also joy in a way for him since now he can finally rest,” she said. “He was a leader you could count on, someone you could trust. He looked into the future, relied on the experience of the past and had the courage to make tough decisions and carry them out.”
Norman Zysblat, 64, called Sharon a “hero of Israel,” whose death left the 90-year-old Peres as perhaps the last remnant of Israel’s greatest generation. He recalled crossing the Suez Canal in 1973 under Sharon’s command, a move widely seen as turning a war against Egypt and Syria in Israel’s favor.
“I saw and felt firsthand the strength he gave the soldiers. He was the one who pushed ahead and provided the spirit,” Zysblat said. “He was one of the greats. When the history of Israel is written, he will be in the first row.”
News of Sharon dominated Israeli newspapers. Israel’s three main television stations all broadcast the memorial live.
A state memorial is planned for Monday at parliament followed by a funeral service at Sharon’s ranch in southern Israel. Under Jewish law, funerals are to be carried out as soon as possible. But in a ritual reserved only for former prime ministers and presidents of Israel, the coffin lays in state at parliament to allow citizens to bid farewell.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Czech Prime Minister Jiri Rusnok, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and others are expected to attend Monday’s ceremonies.
Sharon’s life will be remembered for its three distinct stages: First, was his eventful and controversial time in uniform, including leading a deadly raid in the West Bank that killed 69 Arabs, as well as his heroics in the 1973 Mideast war.
Then came his years as a vociferous political operator who helped create Israel’s settlement movement and masterminded the divisive Lebanon invasion in 1982. He was branded as indirectly responsible for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians at the Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps outside Beirut when his troops allowed allied Lebanese militias into the camps. An uproar over the massacre cost him his job.
Yet ultimately he transformed himself into a prime minister and statesman, capped by a dramatic 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Sharon appeared to be cruising toward re-election when he suffered his stroke in January 2006.
(AP Photo: Members of the Knesset guard carry the coffin of late Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, in Jerusalem, Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014.)