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.