JERUSALEM – 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.
A state memorial is planned for today at parliament followed by a funeral service at Sharon’s ranch in southern Israel. 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.