Old soldiers never die, they just fade away. Or in the case of Ariel Sharon who passed over the weekend at 85, they are strapped in a vegetative state for eight years and then put to rest after a lonely funeral. The late Israeli Prime Minister was eulogized in a service at the Knesset in Jerusalem earlier today and the turnout was low. There was no scramble for foreign dignitaries to board planes and travel hundreds or thousands of miles like they did for Nelson Mandela weeks ago. No one showed up from Africa or Latin America, and Vice President Joe Biden was the only international representative to give an address.
The Israeli public who came out by the hundreds of thousands last October for the passing of Ovadia Yosef, chief Sephardic rabbi, also did not show up in droves. Just one day before Sharon’s body was on display for visitors. Jerusalem streets were blocked off, free shuttle buses were ordered, port-a-pots were rented. But the masses did not come for the faded one. After all Sharon was a man that won wars, but also a man who brought Israel decades of wars.
Heading up the American delegation to memorialize Sharon, Vice President Biden used the opportunity to reaffirm unbending U.S support to Israel; “We have made the case for Israel around the world,” he said, continuing, “We have never failed to defend Israel’s legitimacy.” Biden then closed his remarks by stressing, “the bond with the U.S. will never, ever be broken.”
Biden did praise Sharon for personal character. He mentioned his “political courage” and “physical courage,” which the former prime minister and minister of defense used “to lead men straight into enemy lines and behind them,” but Biden was careful to not mention any military feat by any specifics. He quickly U-turned to Sharon’s love of the Jewish people, by quoting James Joyce and William Shakespeare. Biden conveyed the sanitized point that Sharon was committed to the “survival of the state of Israel and the Jewish people, wherever they resided.”
“Prime Minister Sharon was a complex man,” said Biden. “Since he passed away in the days ahead there will be much written about him.”
Perhaps because of recent U.S.-Israeli scuttles over diplomacy versus the threat of military strike on Iran and Syria, or perhaps because Sharon presided over numerous raids on Palestinian villages including the massacre at Sabra and Shatilla in Southern Lebanon, or perhaps because Sharon oversaw the conquest of Egypt’s Sinai, or perhaps because Sharon was the architect of settlements designed to land grab the Northern West Bank, or perhaps because he ordered the import of thousands of settlers in the Gaza Strip—and their withdraw—the particular achievements of this lone soldier’s military career were left unmentioned at today’s ceremony.
Had he had the opportunity to live longer, Biden suggested Sharon would have eventually made a play for a more dovish approach to regional politics. Biden then quoted Sharon, who he said lamented late in life, “I have one thing I would like to do, try and reach peace.” But Biden said Sharon was not able to take this last venture, because after a lifetime career in the Israeli military and government he fell into a coma in 2006.
To Palestinians, Sharon is a reminder of the occupation and all of its daily torments. Sharon was prime minister during the turbulent years of 2001-2006 and his name is synonymous with a monster that ruined one’s childhood. My taxi driver on the way to the funeral is from Jenin. Sharon is the agony that demolished a football field sized urban area of the city’s refugee camp. Sharon is the man who marched on the al-Aqsa Mosque compound declaring, “The Temple Mount is in our hands.” He and his 1,000-armed guard entourage are considered the starting point of the second uprising.
In the first year of the second intifada 275 Palestinians were killed, including 13 Israeli citizens who were gunned down during a demonstration in October 2000. Later when the Or Commission, a government review of the events that led up to the protesters’ deaths, determined the police had orders to use live-fire, mimicking the border police’s protest suppression in the West Bank at the same time, Sharon was viewed as the man whose reign showed that Israeli-Arabs will always be seen by the state as Arabs first, Israeli citizens second.
Even within his own party, Likud, Sharon is a bit of tainted entity. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regaled him for his military stewardship during today’s state funeral, but slighted him as a statesman. “I did not always agree with Arik, nor did he always agree with me,” said Netanyahu.
And so after the speeches concluded with the Knesset ceremony ending about 30 minutes early, Sharon’s coffin was motored away with little fanfare. He then went to a military ceremony in Laturn, and finally the elder Israeli figure was put in a burial plot alongside his wife Lily in Sycamore Ranch in the Negev.