In an indication of the dramatic transformation in the way the world viewed Ariel Sharon over his lifetime, representatives of some 20 countries are expected to attend his funeral and memorial service on Monday.
“If someone had read the tea leaves in 1985 and told you that the vice president of the United States would be leading a delegation to Sharon’s funeral in the future, you would have thought they were crazy,” one diplomatic official said, referring to the tense relations between the US and Sharon during the First Lebanon War.
Vice President Joe Biden, scheduled to arrive early Monday morning, will lead the US delegation. Other members, the White House announced Sunday, are US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro; Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York), Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Florida), and former ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer. Biden is scheduled to return to the US Monday evening.
It was not immediately clear whether Biden would hold a working meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
The list of participants at the funeral includes the Czech prime minister and defense minister, the foreign ministers of Australia and Germany, the Greek and Cypriot defense ministers, the chairman of the Russian Duma, and ministers and deputy ministers from Italy, Bulgaria, Britain, Holland, Singapore, the Philippines, France, Canada, and Romania.
By contrast, when former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir died in 2012, no foreign dignitaries flew in for his funeral, even though he had a state ceremony and his body laid in state in the Knesset.
When Menachem Begin died in 1992, some 75,000 people joined the funeral march to Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives, but there were no world leaders among them.
Unlike the situation for Sharon or Shamir, Begin requested that there be no eulogies, and only a simple service with no military guard of honor and no lying in state. Begin was buried 13 hours after his death, not enabling any foreign dignitaries to participate in the funeral.
One government official bristled at the notion that either not enough nations were sending representatives to Sharon’s funeral, or the representation sent by the various countries was not senior enough.
“You cannot compare this to the funeral of [former South African president Nelson] Mandela, or even to that of [former British prime minister] Margaret Thatcher,” the official said. Mandela was in a league by himself in the eyes of the world, and Thatcher – from a country much larger and more influential than Israel – also influenced a generation of leaders beyond Britain’s borders. The same cannot be said of Sharon.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor, when asked about the representation from around the world at Sharon’s funeral, said it “brings honor to Israel and to Sharon.”
Meanwhile, even though Sweden is not sending an official to take part in the funeral, its Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, a frequent critic of Israeli policies, drew heavy flak for tweeting that Sharon “was a great leader of Israel. A brilliant military commander, but also a wise statesman seeing the necessity of peace.”
According to The Local, an English language digital newspaper in Sweden, “opposition MPs have been scathing” of Bildt’s tribute. Green Party MP Mehmet Kaplan, a former spokesman of the Muslim Council of Sweden, called Bildt’s comment “very, very tragic.”
“This is very, very strange,” he was quoted as saying. “Simply woeful that he is acting this way.”
Hans Linde, policy spokesperson for the Left Party, which advocates a consumer boycott of Israeli goods, was quoted as calling the comments “deeply provocative.”
“He pays tribute to a person who is responsible for widespread massacres of Palestinians. A person who openly advocated the expulsion of the entire Palestinian people,” Linde was quoted as having told the Svenska Dagbladet daily, adding that Bildt’s tweet had hurt Sweden’s credibility.
Most of the dignitaries will be staying at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, though some will also be staying at the David Citadel and possibly the Mamilla and Inbal hotels. Among them is German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier, who had initially been scheduled to pay an official visit and meet with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, and President Shimon Peres, as well as the leadership of the Palestinian Authority.
Following the announcement of Sharon’s passing, Steinmeier’s plans were changed, but not his decision to come to Israel. He will visit the Palestinian Authority after the funeral and before returning to Germany will have dinner with Liberman at the Foreign Ministry.
Among the other foreign dignitaries staying at the King David are the president and foreign minister respectively of Austria, Heinz Fischer and Sebastian Kurz. The latter, at age 27, is currently the youngest foreign minister in the European Union.
Greer Fay Cashman contributed to this report.