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'Exceptional soldier' Ariel Sharon honored at memorial service

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Courtesy NBC News

By Henry Austin, NBC News contributor

Vice President Joe Biden paid tribute to Ariel Sharon's "indomitable" spirit and reiterated America's commitment to Israel in a speech at the former prime minister's state memorial service on Monday. 

"[Sharon] had a North Star from which he never deviated," Biden told a crowd featuring hundreds of Israel VIPs, diplomats and foreign dignitaries outside the country's parliament "His North Star was the survival of the state of Israel and the Jewish people wherever they resided. Because he possessed such incredible physical courage and political courage I would argue he never deviated from that."

Biden said that some of the decisions taken by Israel's 11th prime minister had been controversial, citing Sharon ordering 10,000 Israelis to leave their homes in the Gaza Strip "in order from his perspective to strengthen Israel."

Whether they agreed or disagreed with his policies he said the U.S. had been unflagging in its commitment to the state of Israel and had never failed to defend their legitimacy, something Biden said would never change.

"May the bond between Israel and the United States never, ever be broken," he said.

President Barack Obama, who took office in 2009 and made his first presidential visit to Israel last year, did not attend. The only trip of his presidency to pay his respects to a foreign leader was last month, when he attended a memorial service in South Africa for former president Nelson Mandela.

Israeli President Shimon Peres also paid tribute to Sharon, who died Saturday after being in a coma for eight years following a stroke. 

"We are accompanying to his final resting place today, a soldier, an exceptional soldier, a commander who knew how to win," Peres said. 

Sharon spent most of his life battling Arab enemies and promoting Jewish settlement on war-won lands. His backers called him a war hero. His detractors, first and foremost the Palestinians, considered him a war criminal and held him responsible for years of bloodshed.

Sharon was also widely hated by Arabs for what they regarded as harsh and aggressive policies, including a 1982 invasion of Lebanon in a bid to stamp out Palestinian guerrillas as well as military crackdowns and settlement-building in occupied territories. 

However, friends praised Sharon as a strategic genius who had stunned the world in 2005 by pulling Israeli troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip -- a Palestinian territory in the south. 

Britain's former Prime Minister and current United Nations Middle East envoy Tony Blair also spoke saying Sharon, "didn't think of peace as a dreamer but did dream of peace."

Later Monday, Sharon's body was due to be taken from the Knesset to his farm in southern Israel for burial.

Read on NBC News

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