Israel's media salute controversial hero Sharon

Israeli honour guards carry the coffin of former prime minister Ariel Sharon as it arrives at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, on Sunday, Jan 12, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Israeli honour guards carry the coffin of former prime minister Ariel Sharon as it arrives at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, on Sunday, Jan 12, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Israeli media on Sunday lavished praise on former prime minister Ariel Sharon, who died the previous day in hospital after eight years in a coma.

But along with plaudits for his military and political courage there was also acknowledgement of an arrogant and devious side to his complex personality.

"The life of Ariel Sharon and the life of the state of Israel were intertwined into a single cord," commentator Nahum Barnea wrote in the top-selling Yediot Aharonot daily, in a piece entitled "The warrior rests."

"He was everything the fathers of the state dreamed they would see in the generation of the sons, the natives of the Land of Israel: a handsome and strong farmer who works the land, a soldier for life.

"The fathers provided the vision; the sons were responsible for delivering. And there was no one who delivered with more resoluteness, more talent and more cunning than Ariel Sharon," he wrote.

Front-page photos showed Sharon the gentleman farmer with a lamb in his arms at his sheep farm in the south of Israel; the heroic warrior in uniform with his head bandaged, and the besuited statesman deep in thought.

He is to be buried at the farm on Monday, alongside his second wife, Lilly.

The papers reminded readers of the political daring he showed in ordering Israel's 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, enraging the Israeli right.

But they also recalled his ruthless manipulation of instability in Lebanon, leading to the Israeli invasion in 1982 and Mr Sharon's complicity in the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians by Israel's Lebanese Phalangist allies in Beirut's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.

"Throughout the years, especially after Sabra and Shatila, he was on the sidelines of Israeli politics, beaten and abandoned," Shalom Yerushalmi wrote in Maariv newspaper.

"The public, however, never hated him. In fact, they generally forgave him. Sharon's military triumphs served as his flak jacket," he added.

"Perhaps the most revered and often reviled of the country's politicians, perceived alternately as a peacemaker and a warmonger, for decades his actions as military commander and statesman shaped both Israel's self-perception and the world's image of the Jewish nation," the conservative Jerusalem Post summed up.

"For all his flaws, Israel is poorer without leaders like Ariel Sharon," said an editorial in the left-leaning Haaretz.

"In contrast with his reckless image of the past, while in power he made decisions slowly and carefully, and carried them out only after making sure he had public support and Washington's backing," it said, saying no politician had been able to fill his shoes.

"Since Sharon's departure, Israel has lacked leadership that acknowledges the limits of power, maintains its alliance with the United States, displays political courage in the territories and won't be deterred by the settlers."

Even columnist Gideon Levy, arguably Mr Sharon's bitterest Israeli critic, paid his respects in the same paper.

"He was certainly Israel's most courageous politician. He was also its cruellest. He was the leader who used brute force more than anyone to achieve his policies. But he was also one of few to recognise the limits of force," he wrote.