Israel’s Ariel Sharon eulogized in state ceremony before funeral

Global leaders joined top Israeli officials at a state memorial ceremony Monday for former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who died Saturday.

SYCAMORE RANCH, Israel — On a day marked by military protocol, somber ceremony and informal reflection, former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was remembered Monday as a “practical and pragmatic man,” a “bulldozer” who helped shape his nation even as he earned a reputation for ruthlessness from its enemies.

Sharon, who died Saturday at 85 after years in a stroke-induced coma, was hailed by world leaders in a public memorial service in Jerusalem before taking a last journey to his family’s ranch in southern Israel, where he was laid to rest beside his second wife in a burial that combined military pomp with traditional Jewish ritual.

Both as a military commander and politician, Sharon was an imposing figure who left an indelible stamp on modern Israel. Whether it was for better or worse was a topic of bitter debate, but Monday was a day for those who would lionize him.

As the day began, Sharon’s coffin lay covered in the Israeli flag on a raised platform in a wide plaza outside the Knesset, or parliament, where he had served for 30 years as a lawmaker, minister and, finally, prime minister.

At a formal state ceremony, President Shimon Peres, the country’s longest-serving public figure, eulogized the man who had been his colleague and friend since their first meeting more than half a century ago.


“You cultivated the land with your scythe and defended it with your sword. Your fingerprints are on every diplomatic situation and every military outpost,” the president said of Sharon.

He described Sharon as a military legend who then “turned his gaze toward the day Israel would dwell in safety.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tied Sharon’s legacy to the present. “He insisted on our right to defend ourselves so that we may live here securely. Today, too, we remain adamant on this right, which is a vital condition for our existence here and for the existence of peace,” Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu was one of Sharon’s political adversaries and strongly opposed his 2005 decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. “I did not always agree with Arik, nor did he always agree with me,” said Netanyahu, using Sharon’s nickname. But he described the late leader as a “practical, pragmatic man” with strong feelings for his country.

Vice President Joe Biden recalled his many meetings with Sharon over 30 years, describing a powerfully built man whose presence filled a room.

In a nod to another nickname given to Sharon — fondly by some, less so by others — Biden said that “you immediately understood how he acquired … the nickname ‘bulldozer.’ He was indomitable.”

Biden’s role in leading the U.S. delegation was seen as significant by both sides, particularly as Secretary of State John F. Kerry works to advance peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. During a bilateral meeting at the Israeli president’s residence later in the day, Peres said the visit was “timely” and “important,” as the country “has to take tough decisions.”

A working dinner between Biden and Netanyahu went longer than planned Monday evening. The two men were joined after more than an hour by a broader group of advisors.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the special envoy for the so-called Mideast quartet — the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia — also spoke at the Jerusalem ceremony. He dismissed the oft-repeated notion that Sharon had changed from a man of war to a man of peace.

Sharon’s strategic objective and commitment to Israel never changed, Blair said, and “when that meant fighting, he fought. When that meant making peace, he made peace.”

In a military motorcade escorted by police and army vehicles, Sharon made his last trip to his family farm, to be buried on a hilltop known for its wildflowers, beside his second wife, Lily. Sharon called the ranch Havat Shikmim, which means Sycamore Ranch in Hebrew.

Following Jewish mourning tradition, a military rabbi cut a small tear into the shirt collars of Sharon’s sons, Omri and Gilad, who recited a prayer for their father.

As young paratroopers stood by in an honor guard, Israeli army generals lowered the coffin into the ground. Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, Israel’s chief of staff, saluted Sharon and delivered a eulogy to the commander he called “a fusion between warrior and dreamer” who shaped the nation’s army.

The service was more personal than the state ceremony in Jerusalem. Omri Sharon read a Hebrew translation of “Education of the Chieftain” by the late Chilean poet and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda, which talks about the path toward gaining worthiness of leadership. “It might have been written for him personally,” he said.

Omri’s older brother, Gilad, spoke of a tragedy in the family — the death of Sharon’s eldest son, Gur, in a gun accident at age 11 in 1967 — and how Sharon soldiered on despite his grief. His father’s sense of responsibility to his family never ebbed, Gilad Sharon said.

“Time after time you have made the impossible happen,” he said. “This is how you create the myth of the nation.”

Sealing the ceremony was a three-volley salute, fired from M-16 rifles by the guard of young paratroopers in the trademark red berets of Sharon’s unit.

Shortly after, several rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip toward Israel. No immediate damage was reported.

Various measures had been taken before the ceremony to enhance security around the ranch, not far from the border with Gaza, including the deployment of an Iron Dome rocket-interception battery in the area.

News assistant Sobelman reported from Jerusalem and Times staff writer Memoli from Sycamore Ranch.

taff writer Memoli from Sycamore Ranch.