Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday paid tribute to Ariel Sharon, the man he replaced as head of the Likud party and an ally turned bitter political rival, calling him a key figure in Israel's history.
"Ariel Sharon had a central role in the battle for Israel's security from the very beginning," said Netanyahu. "He was first and foremost a brave soldier and a distinguished military leader, among the greatest commanders in the IDF ."
He added, "His memory will be saved forever in the heart of the nation."
Netanyahu succeeded Sharon as head of the Likud in 2005, when the latter bolted the party he had helped found after internal divisions following his decision to leave the Gaza Strip. Netanyahu was a fierce opponent of the disengagement from Gaza, and resigned his post as finance minister in Sharon's government as an expression of his opposition.
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President Shimon Peres, who joined Sharon's Kadima party from Labor in late 2005 and who was the party's winning choice for president, also praised the former prime minister for his courage in battle, as well as for his political leadership.
"Sharon surrendered today to a heroic battle for his life," said the 91-year-old president. "Arik was a brave soldier and a daring statesman, who gave much to the security and defense of the State of Israel."
He said, "Arik loved his people, and his peope loved him. He was one of Israel's greatest defenders and chief architects, who never knew fear and never lack for vision. Sharon knew how to decide and how to act."
Finance Minister Yair Lapid, whose father Yosef "Tommy" Lapid was often politically aligned with the former prime minister, called Sharon
"Sharon was one of the most distinguishable of Israeli leaders. A brave soldier and commander in the field, a leader without comparison in the diplomatic and political field, and a dear friend," he said. "The State of Israel, which has missed Sharon's figure for eight years, mourns his death."
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who left the Likud with Sharon when he established Kadima, and took over as party leader in 2008, paid tribute to the man to whom she had tied her political fortunes.
"Arik Sharon was a farmer, a fighter, and a prime minister who became a father of a nation, but more than anything he was a man I loved," she said. "They say veteran soldiers never die – they fade away. Arik faded away eight years ago, and now he has left us for good. We had eight years to say goodbye, and yet we couldn't. We say goodbye to him now. My deepest condolences to Omri and Gilad who fought for his life with him and were always by his side."
Ehud Olmert, who replaced Sharon as prime minister after his second, debilitating stroke, said Sharon would be missed by the entire country. "For his entire life Arik stood in the line of fire – in the place where Israel's destiny is determined," he said. "In the eight years since he collapsed he was missed by the State of Israel and by me personally. His absence will continue to be felt in the future as well."
Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, who served IDF chief of staff during Sharon's premiership, aknowledged the differences between them, but hailed him as an outstanding military leader.
"Despite the fundamental differences we discovered along the way, I always appreciated his experience and his leadership. Ariel Sharon was first and foremost an outstanding military leader and one of the shapers of the IDF as an army which strives for swift actions against the enemy."
Sharon's prowess as a military man was a frequent refrain among those paid tribute to him.
"All through my childhood in Kibbutz Hulda we heard stories of Arik's bravery in the 101," recalled Brigadier-General (Res.) Amatsia Chen, who served under Sharon.
"Already then, Arik was an icon, and like every teenage boy I wanted to be him. He was our hero and spoke of him endlessly," said Chen, who served as deputy commander of the elite Shaked Unit during the War of Attrition while Sharon was Southern District Commander in the IDF."