|This June 4, 2003, file photo shows (from left) Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, King Abdullah of Jordan and U.S. President George W. Bush, walking off stage after making statements after their meeting at Beit al Bahar Palace in Aqaba, Jordan. (AP-Yonhap News)|
PARIS (AFP) ― World leaders paid tribute Saturday to former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, calling him a patriot who made “brave decisions” to secure his country’s future, but his foes derided him as a “criminal.”
U.S. President Barack Obama led the global chorus of praise for Sharon, remembering him as “a leader who dedicated his life to the state of Israel.”
His secretary of state John Kerry, who has criss-crossed the Middle East in a drive for a peace deal, said he would “never forget meeting with this big bear of a man when he became prime minister.”
“Today, we all recognize, as he did, that Israel must be strong to make peace, and that peace will also make Israel stronger,” added Kerry.
Sharon was a polarizing figure in his home country, falling foul of the left for his unstinting support for settlement building while alienating the right through a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005.
But foreign leaders praised his decision on Gaza, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel calling it “courageous.”
With that, “he took an important historic step on the road towards reconciliation with the Palestinians and for a two-state solution,” said Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert.
British Prime Minister David Cameron also hailed Sharon for making “brave and controversial decisions in pursuit of peace, before he was so tragically incapacitated.”
“Israel has today lost an important leader,” Cameron said in a statement of the man who is one of the last members of the generation which founded the Jewish state in 1948.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Sharon would be remembered for “his political courage and determination to carry through with the painful and historic decision to withdraw Israeli settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip.”
Ban also called on Israel to “build on the late prime minister’s legacy of pragmatism to work towards the long overdue achievement of an independent and viable Palestinian state, next to a secure Israel.”
Former U.S. president Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary, an ex-secretary of state, said: “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.”
“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,” they added.
Sharon broke with the nationalist Likud party in November 2005 to form the centrist Kadima party with the intention to push through further withdrawals from the West Bank. But just six weeks later, he suffered a massive stroke.
Russian President Vladimir Putin described Sharon as a “great political and military” figure in condolences sent to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to a Kremlin statement.
Putin also said he has a “high esteem of the personal qualities of Sharon and his activities aimed at defending the interests of Israel.”
Russia has a complex relationship with Israel, with the two sides enjoying friendly ties even though Moscow is a key backer of Israel’s foes such as Iran or Syria.
French President Francois Hollande said Sharon had been “a major player” in his country’s history, adding he had “made the choice of turning towards dialogue with the Palestinians.”
But the Palestinians welcomed Sharon’s death, with a senior official labeling him a criminal and accusing him of being responsible for the mysterious death in 2004 of the veteran Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat.