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World, Israeli leaders react to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's death

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon died at 85, after being in a coma for 8 years from a stroke, Jan. 11, 2014; world leaders are using this moment to push PM Benjamin Netanyahu and accelerate the peace process
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon died at 85, after being in a coma for 8 years from a stroke, Jan. 11, 2014; world leaders are using this moment to push PM Benjamin Netanyahu and accelerate the peace process
David Silverman, Getty Images

After over a week of where his health rapidly deteriorated, Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (2001-2006) died at age 85 Saturday afternoon 2 p.m. Israel time on Jan. 11, 2014 eight years after entering a coma from a massive stroke on Jan. 4, 2006 that he never woke up from. In the North America news came of his death Saturday morning, and immediately world leaders began an outpouring of statements condolences and eulogizing former the Israeli general and prime minister's life. A major portion of the statements released seem not only for the purpose of eulogizing a leader that just died, but differing warnings from the world and Israel about making decisions about the peace process to current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The politicization of Sharon's death is inappropriate nor should leaders use it to push their own agenda or the peace process regardless of Sharon's own actions and legacy. Sharon's state funeral will be a two-day affair on Sunday, Jan. 12, he lied in state at the Knesset and on Monday, Jan.13 there wil be a memorial in the morning followed by a military fiuneral and burial in the afternoon.

Netanyahu has been feeling the pressure from the international community to agree to major concessions for a peace deal with the Palestinians, terms that face fierce opposition from not Israeli politicians, but also the public. Among those terms including returning to the 1967 borders, withdrawing from the West Bank, the settlements in Judea, Samaria (Shomron) and the strategic Jordan Valley and give East Jerusalem to the Palestinians for their state capital. The Times of Israel reported on those "not subtle" pushes by world leaders to force Netanyahu to agree to those terms. While Daniella Weiss, a leader of Gush Emunim, a group that fights for the West Bank settlements told Arutz Sheva that world leaders are making "(Sharon) a hero despite the expulsion of thousands of Jews from their homes and his casting aside the security of the state of Israel, they essentially give (Prime Minister Binyamin) Netanyahu the message that he too will be crowned a greater hero if only he follows Sharon's path."

President Barack Obama's statement's read half like a condolence message; "On behalf of the American people, Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to the family of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and to the people of Israel on the loss of a leader who dedicated his life to the State of Israel…. As Israel says goodbye to Prime Minister Sharon, we join with the Israeli people in honoring his commitment to his country." However, the middle of his statement was a push for his own agenda with the current aimed at pushing a framework agreement on the above terms; "We reaffirm our unshakable commitment to Israel's security and our appreciation for the enduring friendship between our two countries and our two peoples. We continue to strive for lasting peace and security for the people of Israel, including through our commitment to the goal of two states living side-by-side in peace and security."

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's statement was by far the most focused on his own political agenda of getting Netanyahu to agree to a framework agreement. This past weekend speaking to a group of Arab ministers Kerry declared; "We are ready to make peace now, in 2014." Most of the language from his statement echoes, his remarks when speaking about the current peace talks. Kerry wrote; "he sought to bend the course of history toward peace, even as it meant testing the patience of his own longtime supporters and the limits of his own, lifelong convictions in the process. He was prepared to make tough decisions because he knew that his responsibility to his people was both to ensure their security and to give every chance to the hope that they could live in peace…. you admired the man who was determined to ensure the security and survival of the Jewish State. In his final years as Prime Minister, he surprised many in his pursuit of peace, and today, we all recognize, as he did, that Israel must be strong to make peace, and that peace will also make Israel stronger. We honor Arik's legacy and those of Israel's founding generation by working to achieve that goal."

Former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a joint statement that emphasized also Sharon's role in the peace process; "Ariel Sharon gave his life to Israel - to bring it into being, to sustain and preserve it, and at the end of his long service, to create a new political party committed to both a just peace and lasting security. It was an honor to work with him, argue with him, and watch him always trying to find the right path for his beloved country."

Former President George W. Bush's statement was more personal, calling Sharon a "friend," but still emphasized a "a better peaceful Middle East;" "Laura and I join our friends in Israel and around the world in mourning the loss of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. I was honored to know this man of courage and call him friend. He was a warrior for the ages and a partner in seeking security for the Holy Land and a better, peaceful Middle East. Laura and I send our heartfelt condolences to Ariel's family and all who will dearly miss him."

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will head the American delegation that will present at the memorial ceremony and funeral, and most his statement mentions this fact; "Jill and I were saddened to hear of the passing of Ariel Sharon. We send our condolences to his family and to his beloved nation of Israel. I look forward to leading the U.S. delegation to his memorial service, to pay respects to the man and to pay tribute to the unshakeable partnership between the United States and Israel."

On Sunday, Jan. 12, the White House released the list of who will be joining Biden on his trip to Israel; US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-NY, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-NY, and Former US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer. Biden intends to meet with Netanyahu while in Israel; he will probably pressure the Prime Ministers into agreeing to the American terms for a peace deal. Kerry was suppose to return to Israel on Monday, Jan. 13, but, because of Sharon's death has postponed his visit, instead according to ABC News he phoned Netanyahu "to offer his condolences."

Not only were American leaders pushing a peace deal agenda in their statements, but also Europeans leaders. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was the most blatant in exploiting the moment to push Israel to concede to the Palestinians and world demands stated; Sharon's "political courage and determination to carry through with the painful and historic decision to withdraw Israeli settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip. His successor faces the difficult challenge of realizing the aspirations of peace between the Israeli and Palestinian people." German Chancellor Merkel did not have political history with Sharon, but was equally blatant in emphasizing the disengagement in her statement; "with his courageous decision to withdraw the Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip, he took a historic step on the path to a deal with the Palestinians and a two-state solution."

British Prime Minister Cameron, "who never met" or worked with Sharon focused on the peace process; "Ariel Sharon is one of the most significant figures in Israeli history and as Prime Minister he took brave and controversial decisions in pursuit of peace, before he was so tragically incapacitated. Israel has today lost an important leader." Middle East Quartet Envoy and Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair stated; Sharon was "a monumental figure in the history of the State of Israel, who dedicated his life to the country he loved…. He was a fascinating man who stood firm and unbowed in the face of political difficulties. Although he was a farmer and agriculturalist at heart, his legacy in Israeli politics is enduring and his place in Israel's history everlasting."

In Israel, leftist and centrist political leaders praised Sharon's step in the peace with Gaza disengagement. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was Sharon's deputy and member of his centrist the Kadima party he formed in 2005 stated; "When it was necessary to fight, he stood at the forefront of the divisions in the most sensitive and painful places, but he was a smart and realistic person and understood well that there is a limit in our ability to conduct wars." While Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak from the Labor Party, who loss the 2001 election to Sharon stated; "What he did at the end of his path was extraordinary.... He took action in a way that is crucial to the future of the state of Israel, I mean the disengagement from Gaza." Israeli opposition leader and new Chairman of the Labor Party Isaac Herzog expressed; Sharon "realized the reality and went for a very brave move that recognizes the fact that there is no choice but to separate from the Palestinians."

Not all the reactions to Sharon's legacy was positive; the Israeli right never forgave Sharon for the disengagement, the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza strip in 2005. Many of the comments the religious-Zionist and conservative Bayit Yehudi Party members emphasized opposition to Sharon's disengagement. The messages from Bayit Yehudi party members also serve as a warning to Netanyahu as to the fierce opposition he faces in his own country to agreeing to those terms. MK Orit Struk of Bayit Yehudi was the most dramatic and offensive in her remarks about Sharon stating; "The truth must be said: Sharon was one of the great builders of the land of Israel, and its greatest destroyer. Someone who knew to defeat terror, and someone who caused all the south of the country to be hit by terror. His great firmness and ability to decide and act enabled him to reach impressive achievements, as well as disastrous processes."

However, Economy Minister and Bayit Yehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett in his statement thought a discussion of that part of Sharon's legacy should be left for another time, instead his statement focused on Sharon's military career; "Sharon always was at the decisive point, he was a great military leader who rose for the state of Israel…. In the end of his days (Sharon) initiated and carried out the 'Disengagement' plan - the destruction of Gush Katif and the expulsion of 8,000 of its residents. This evening let us remember his great acts, and leave aside dispute over his end to other days. May his memory be a blessing." Instead, MK Moti Yogev of Bayit Yehudi believes Sharon should rather be remembered for being a champion of settlement building, he thinks the Israeli government should "build new communities in Judea and Samaria bearing his name… not to give in to those who are trying to play up the last part of his life… to focus on Arik Sharon, the man who built, who worked for Aliyah [immigration] and for settlement."

It is precisely because of the criticism from both sides that Netanyahu decided to steer clear of any comments in his statement about Sharon and the peace process; he too stuck his military career and generalizations of his political career. Netanyahu's statement read; "The State of Israel bows its head on the passing of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Ariel Sharon played a central role in the struggle for the security of the State of Israel over all its years. He was, first and foremost, a courageous fighter and an outstanding general, and was among the IDF's greatest commanders…. He established Unit 101 and took the initiative in the war against terrorism, which became a central pillar of the State of Israel. Upon leaving the military, he continued to work on behalf of the people of Israel both in his many government roles and as the 11th prime minister of the State of Israel. His memory will be enshrined forever in the heart of the nation."

In the Arab world Sharon's death was celebrated, the Palestinians, Hamas and those in Lebanon remember Sharon not for the disengagement from Gaza or trying to pursue peace, but for the 1982 Lebanon War. As Defense Minister under Menachem Begin and architect of the Lebanon War, Palestinians blame Sharon for "massacres" that occurred at "Sabra and Shatila refugee camps" in Beirut, Lebanon.

The memorial tribute will not be a long celebration of his life; it is shortened because it has to conscribed to Jewish law, where Sharon needs to be buried within two days of his death. On Sunday, Jan. 12, Sharon's body lied in state for six hours in the Knesset's courtyard in Jerusalem, where approximately 10,000 Israelis poured in to pay their last respects, and both Israeli President Shimon Peres and Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein laid large wreaths at his casket.

At the weekly cabinet meeting held on Sunday, Jan. 12 Sharon was memorialized, there was a moment of silence and Netanyahu dedicated his remarks at the start meeting to eulogizing the Former Prime Minister and his legacy, saying Sharon "was first and foremost a warrior and a commander, among the greatest military commanders produced by the Jewish people in recent times and throughout its history." Netanyahu then listed the military campaigns in which Sharon had participated and praised him for his contributions to Israel's security. In all his roles - as defense minister, housing minister, infrastructures minster, and foreign minister - Arik contributed to the State of Israel, as he did also as prime minister of Israel. I think that he represents the generation of Jewish fighters that our people established with the renewal of our independence.

On Monday, Jan. 13 there will a memorial in the Knesset in the morning, where according the Israeli government's schedule "President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and members of the Sharon family" are among the eulogizers and speakers. Additionally U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Tony Blair will also speak. Sharon will receive a military funeral and will be buried in the afternoon as his family ranch Sycamore Farm (Havat Hashikmim), where IDF Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz and Sharon son Omri and Gilad Sharon will give eulogies. Given the location in the western Negev and closer to Gaza than even the ever terrorized Sderot and within close range of missiles from Hamas in Gaza of the funeral will be protected Israel mission defense shield Iron Dome, along with "800 police, soldiers, and border patrol officers."

Representatives will be present from some leading nations; however, very few leaders themselves will attend the memorial and funeral, among those that are attending according to the Israeli government include; "US Vice President Joe Biden, Quartet representative and former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, Czech Prime Minister Jiri Rusnok, Russian State Duma Chairman Sergey Naryshkin, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Spanish Home Affairs Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz, Canadian Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander."

Not all leaders or former leaders that issued statement had political goals, some were appropriately what they should be; condolences. Staunch supporter of Israel Canadian Prime Stephen Harper had "quickly" released his statement "praising" Sharon; "On behalf of all Canadians, Laureen and I offer our deepest condolences to the family and friends of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and to the Israeli people… A renowned military leader, Mr. Sharon pursued the security of Israel with unyielding determination that was recognized by friends and foes alike…. Canada values its long-standing relationship with Israel, which is based on shared values, common interests and strong political, economic, cultural and social ties." Harper will make his first visit to Israel later this month; he is sending Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander to represent Canada at the funeral.

The most personal and heartfelt statement from a political leader came from Israeli President Shimon Peres, who spoke out not only in official statements both written and televised, but also initially on Twitter to memorialize a "dear friend." Peres stated; "My dear friend, Arik Sharon, lost his final battle today. Arik was a brave soldier and a daring leader who loved his nation and his nation loved him. He was one of Israel's great protectors and most important architects, who knew no fear and certainly never feared vision. He knew how to take difficult decisions and implement them. We all loved him and he will be greatly missed. I send my condolences to the Sharon family, may he rest in peace." Peres also expressed; "In the earlier years and throughout we kept our friendship in the most moving way. I shall miss him dearly and remember him lovingly."


Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.

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