JERUSALEM — Reaffirming the United States' "unflagging" commitment to Israel, Vice President Joe Biden paid tribute Monday to the country’s late prime minister, Ariel Sharon, as a “complex man” whose life “traced the journey of Israel.”
Quoting Shakespeare, James Joyce, the Book of Genesis and Sharon himself in a eulogy at the state funeral service for the former leader, Biden hailed the "political courage" of a man who earned the moniker “Bulldozer” for his aggressive moves to defend the Jewish state, but later in life set about dismantling some of the West Bank and Gaza settlements he had fought to establish.
“I can’t think of a much more controversial … decision that’s been made,” Biden said at the service outside the Knesset, or Israeli parliament. “But he believed it. And he did it.”
Biden, wearing a dark suit and yarmulke, acknowledged that Sharon was a “complex man” but said he was always guided by a “north star” — survival of the state of Israel. He noted that Sharon, whom he referred to at times by his nickname, “Arik,” was “never in doubt” about his actions, even when they earned him "controversy and even condemnation."
Some American leaders at times had “profound differences” with Sharon, Biden said, and the late leader was never shy about defending his position.
“The arc of his life traced the journey of Israel,” Biden said. “And through it all, the United States, whether we agreed or disagreed with a specific policy, has been unflagging in its commitment to the state of Israel.”
Biden, who was seated during the service next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, did not refer specifically to U.S. efforts to revive peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, or international negotiations with Iran about its nuclear program. But other speakers did.
Netanyahu, who spoke before Biden, noted that Sharon always “understood how important our connection to the United States is.”
“But he also knew how to be insistent and stand for our rights,” Netanyahu said, adding that Israel would “continue to steer toward peace” but would also work to prevent Iran “from being able to become nuclear.”
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking after Biden, portrayed Sharon’s career differently, arguing that while many point to a shift from warrior to peacemaker, he “actually never changed.”
“His strategic objective remained Israel’s strength and perpetuity,” said Blair, envoy for the international group known as the Mideast quartet. “When that meant fighting, he fought. When that meant making peace, he sought peace.”
Peace, Blair added, is “the anchor ultimately for Israel’s security.”
Biden was making his second visit to Israel as vice president, leading a small U.S. delegation to the funeral that included Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), Ambassador Daniel B. Shapiro and former Washington envoy Daniel C. Kurtzer.
After the service, Biden took part in a meeting between the U.S. delegation and Israeli President Shimon Peres, Netanyahu and Yuli Edelstein, speaker of the Israeli parliament.
Biden also attended a more intimate burial service at Sharon’s ranch before returning to Jerusalem for separate meetings with Peres and Netanyahu.
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