World leaders pay tributes to ‘the bulldozer’

The body of Ariel Sharon, Israel’s former prime minister and general was lying in state at Israel’s parliament building in Jerusalem yesterday, the day after he died aged 85.

Police said thousands of Israelis were expected to pay personal tributes at the Knesset before the doors closed late in the afternoon.

A state memorial is planned today with the participation of Israeli and world leaders, the prime minister’s office said.

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US Vice President Joe Biden, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Czech Prime Minister Jiri Rusnok, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and others will attend, it added.

Afterward Mr Sharon’s body was being taken by military convey for burial at his farm in the south of the country.

One of Israel’s most iconic and controversial figures, Mr Sharon had been in a coma for eight years after a devastating stroke incapacitated him at the peak of his political power.

News coverage of his passing and tales of his exploits dominated Israel’s newspapers and TV stations yesterday.

Mr Sharon’s career stretched across Israel’s 65-year existence and his life was closely intertwined with the country’s history.

As one of Israel’s most famous generals, Mr Sharon was known for bold tactics and an occasional refusal to obey orders.

Historians credit him with helping turn the tide of the 1973 Mideast war when Arab armies launched a surprise attack on Israel on the solemn fasting day of Yom Kippur, causing large Israeli casualties.

As a politician, he became known as “the bulldozer” – a man contemptuous of his critics while also capable of getting things done. He was elected prime minister in 2001.

In 2005, he directed a unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip. It was a shocking turnaround for a man who had been a leading player in building Jewish settlements.

He later left his hard-line Likud Party and established the centrist Kadima Party. It seemed he was on his way to an easy re-election when he suffered the stroke in January 2006.

President Barack Obama remembered former Mr Sharon’s “commitment to his country”.

“We join with the Israeli people in honouring his commitment to his country,” Mr Obama said. He also used the occasion to reaffirm “our unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security”.

The president said: “We continue to strive for a lasting peace and security for the people of Israel.”

Mr Biden said he looked forward to the opportunity “to pay respects to the man and to pay tribute to the unshakeable partnership between the United States and Israel”.

Tributes also came from Secretary Of State John Kerry, former presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush and other US leaders.

Mr Kerry said he would never forget meeting “this big bear of a man” after Mr Sharon became prime minister.

“In his final years as prime minister, he surprised many in his pursuit of peace and, today, we all recognise, as he did, that Israel must be strong to make peace, and that peace will also make Israel stronger,” he said.

Since becoming the top US diplomat last year, Mr Kerry has made 10 trips to the Middle East, including this month, in the hope of brokering a lasting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.

“It was an honour to work with him, argue with him, and watch him always trying to find the right path for his beloved country,” said Mr Clinton.

Mr Bush, who held office simultaneously with Mr Sharon, called him a friend and “man of courage”.

He said: “He was a warrior for the ages and a partner in seeking security for the Holy Land and a better, peaceful Middle East.”

In both size and personality, Ariel Sharon was described as resembling the bulldozers he favoured as a key military weapon – bullish, indiscriminate and apparently unstoppable.

As a teenage paramilitary, a professional soldier and a veteran Rightist politician, his primary goal never changed – securing Israel as a permanent haven for Jews.