JERUSALEM – Spoiled by sunshine for about 520 days a year, Jerusalemites are strangely phobic about cloudy weather, as if a grey day could infect them with Nordic melancholy.
Sunday was one such day: the streets empty, the air quiet and chilly. So perhaps the poor turnout for the lying-in-state of Israel’s former prime minister, Ariel Sharon, was foreordained.
At the Knesset, Israel's parliament, the authorities had prepared for crowds, and for regular climes. Every few feet, on the margins of the plaza, jugs of mineral water and hundreds of plastic cups awaited the throngs. Police were deployed. About 200 distinguished members of the world's media gathered in clusters in front of the flag-draped coffin containing Sharon’s remains.
But the public itself was sparse. A thin line of Israelis snaked slowly by the casket, which was surrounded by a military honor guard and watched over by a representative of the army chaplain.
Meanwhile, as the slow trickle of citizenry walked by, the Israeli website Ynetnews informed its audience "thousands" were paying their respects.
Somewhat more cautiously, Israel Army Radio reported that "there are not real crowds here, but over the course of the day a few thousand, yes, thousands, have paid their respects."
It was one of several incongruous moments. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sharon's most ruthless political rival, eulogized his predecessor at the start of Sunday's cabinet meeting as "first and foremost, a warrior and a commander, among the Jewish people's greatest generals in the current era and throughout its history."
Sharon will be remembered "as one of our most outstanding leaders," he said, in closing.
Days earlier, in a conversation with GlobalPost, Sharon biographer David Landau said Sharon felt "only contempt" for Netanyahu.
If the mourners outside were few, the few were passionate. Ziv Elkobi, 35, a striking woman wearing a faux leopard jacket and turquoise chandelier earrings, drove with her 50-year-old brother, Meir, for more than two hours, from their hometown of Tiberias, to pay their respects.
"We thought there would be so many thousands we might not even be able to get close," Meir said, glancing about in a state of mild confusion.
"I guess no one is here because they mourned him eight years ago," Ziv added.
They had come to honor "a founder of the state, a head of state, who served his whole life and deserves respect," Ziv said. Meir added, "We're here because it’s Arik," using the diminutive by which most Israelis knew Sharon.
Nearby, a tall, distinguished gentleman in a black fur hat gazed in the general direction of the coffin.
For him, the event was intensely personal. Aharon Levy, 82, served as Ariel Sharon's first driver, and later as his bodyguard. They were so close that he accompanied Sharon and his first wife, Gali, on their honeymoon to Eilat.
Levy brought with him two important keepsakes: a stamped document, from 1953, confirming his status as Sharon's chauffeur, and a color photograph of his bereted, younger self proud in a police uniform.
"I was the youngest of 10," the native Jerusalemite said. "Sharon chose me to be his driver when he was setting up his first elite company, and we were together from that day forth. He taught me everything I needed for life."
"Sharon," he says, "was a good man. Studious. Straight as an arrow. Loyal."
Ariel Sharon is to be buried Monday on his farm in the Negev desert. He will be eulogized by United States Vice President Joe Biden and Britain's former prime minister, Tony Blair, among others.