A senior Egyptian diplomat was among the guests who honored former prime minister Ariel Sharon Monday morning at a state memorial ceremony held at the Knesset in Jerusalem.
The Egyptian embassy’s No. 2 diplomat was among the dozens of dignitaries who attended the event, an Israeli Foreign Ministry official told The Times of Israel. The Knesset ceremony featured eulogies by President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who extolled Sharon as one of Israel’s greatest military leaders.
No name for the official was available, and a spokesperson at the Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv declined to comment. Egyptian diplomats in Israel generally keep a low profile due to strained formal relations between the countries. Behind-the-scenes, by contrast, security coordination between the two countries is currently fairly close.
In his speech at the ceremony, Netanyahu hailed Sharon’s military prowess and doctrines, some of which he employed in wars against Egypt. “His maneuvering and command abilities were demonstrated primarily during the Yom Kippur War when he led the IDF forces across the Suez Canal and surrounded the Egyptian Third Army,” the prime minister said. “This maneuver, under his command, reversed the direction of the battle and led to the successful conclusion of the war, which began under very difficult circumstances for the State of Israel.”
During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Sharon led Israeli troops across the Suez Canal, breaking the back of the Egyptian offensive. As his troops encircled Egypt’s Third Army, Sharon, a reserves officer at the time, instructed them to plant Israeli flags on the high ground, so that the Egyptians would look back across the water and see that they were trapped.
In 1977, when Anwar Sadat arrived in Israel for a historic visit, breaking the Arab world’s taboo on contacts with Israel, he was apparently keen to meet Sharon, who, together with other ministers, greeted the Egyptian president at the airport.
“When he passed near me he shook my hand and said: ‘I tried to catch you when you were on our side of the canal,’” Sharon recalled many years later. “I replied: ‘Well, Mr. President, now you have a chance to catch me as a friend.’ This was the conversation. Sadat was a man of vision, therefore conversations with him usually focused on the future. Very little was said about things of the past.”
Israel and Egypt signed a peace agreement in 1979, after Cairo offered a peace treaty in exchange for a full withdrawal from the Sinai. Sharon was initially opposed to the deal but eventually voted in favor in the Knesset.
Sharon also had a good relationship with Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak. “The only one left is Sharon,” Mubarak reportedly said in 2005, describing Sharon as the only Israeli leader who could deliver peace with the Palestinians.
It was not immediately clear whether any Jordanian officials attended the memorial ceremony Monday. Contacted by The Times of Israel, an assistant of the ambassador of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan — the other Arab country with which Israel has diplomatic relations — refused to state whether anyone from the Jordanian embassy attended the event. Sharon’s relationship to Jordan was not particularly cordial; he had been a vocal proponent of the “Jordan is Palestine” ideology for the better part of his life.
A senior diplomat from Turkey was among the VIPs attending the event at the Knesset, although the embassy in Tel Aviv refused to confirm the diplomat’s presence. “I’m sorry, but I cannot give you any information,” an employee told The Times of Israel.
No Turkish or Arab diplomats attended the funeral at Sharon’s Sycamore Farm in the Negev later on Monday. There was also no one there from Africa and Latin America.
US Vice President Joe Biden, Czech Prime Minister Jiří Rusnok and the foreign ministers of Australia and Germany were among the top foreign officials who attended both events, among nearly 20 other ministers and senior officials. However, not a single incumbent head of state was present at either event.
Russian State Duma Chairman Sergey Naryshkin and Spanish Home Affairs Minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz flew in for the first ceremony in Jerusalem but returned to their home countries immediately afterwards and did not participate in the funeral.
After the funeral and eulogies by IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and the former prime minister’s sons, Omri and Gilad, senior officials from 21 nations laid wreaths at the fresh grave. The Foreign Ministry decided that this honor would only be granted to senior officials who traveled from their capitals to Israel; ambassador and senior diplomats stationed in Israel were invited to attend but not given the opportunity to lay wreaths.
According to Israeli diplomatic protocol, wreaths were supposed to be laid in order of rank and then by alphabetical order, but there were two exceptions: former UK prime minister Tony Blair, who is also the Quartet’s special envoy to the Middle East, was the second foreign dignitary, right after Biden, although he is no longer in office. According to the Israeli diplomat who drew up the list, Blair was given a special honor at the behest of the Sharon family, to which he is close and which had requested he be given special treatment.
The other anomaly was that Bulgarian Deputy Foreign Minister Angel Velitchkov was called to lay a wreath before German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. “This was a mistake,” the Israeli diplomat said, explaining that initially Bulgaria’s Foreign Minister Kristian Vigenin was scheduled to travel to Israel, but in the end had to send his deputy. And since Bulgaria comes before Germany in the alphabet, Velitchkov came out ahead of Steinmeier. “I apologized to the German foreign minister for the error,” the diplomat said.
Here is the full list of foreign dignitaries who laid wreaths at Sharon’s grave:
- Joe Biden, Vice President of the United States of America
- Tony Blair, Special Envoy to the Middle East (and Former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom), accompanied by Hugh Robertson, Minister of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the United Kingdom
- Jiří Rusnok, Prime Minister of the Czech Republic
- Julie Bishop, Foreign Minister of Australia
- Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Federal Republic of Germany
- Liviu Dragnea, Vice Prime Minister of Romania
- Gerald Klug, Minister for National Defense and Sport of the Republic of Austria
- Fotis Fotiou, Defense Minister of the Republic of Cyprus
- Dimitris Avrampolous, Greek Minister of DefenceTomasz Siemoniak, the Minister of National Defense of the Republic of Poland
- Chris Alexander, Citizenship and Immigration Minister of Canada
- Wim Kok, Former Prime Minister of the Netherlands, also representing the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg
- Armand De Decker, Second Vice President of the Senate of the Kingdom of Belgium
- Masagos Zulkifli, Second Foreign Minister of the Republic of Singapore
- Angel Velitchkov, Deputy Foreign Minister of the Republic of Bulgaria
- Hélène Conway-Mouret, Minister Delegate for French Nationals Abroad of the Foreign Ministry of the French Republic
- Marta Dassù, Deputy Foreign Minister of Italy
- János Fónagy, Parliamentary State Secretary for National Development of Hungary
- Samuel Schmid, Former President of Switzerland
- Wang Changyi, Former Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to Israel and previously Assistant to the Foreign Minister of the People’s Republic of China
- Ambassador Wegger Strommen, Political Director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Norway.