At the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin, the former prime minister’s longtime partner and rival, Shimon Peres, looked out at the sea of dignitaries who came to pay their respects and allegedly quipped: “He beat me again!”
Peres lived for more than 25 years after Rabin passed and historians will dispute who contributed more to Israel’s history. However, on Friday on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, on a warm and sunny day, Peres received the funeral he would have wanted. From the moment word spread, shortly after his death, that U.S. President Barack Obama would be attending, it was clear Peres would receive the type of memorial that the last leader of his generation deserved.
Since it became clear that Peres was dying, there has been a melancholy feeling throughout Israel. At the funeral ceremony, Peres’s son, Yoni shared that when he asked his father what he wanted to be inscribed on his tombstone, the 93-year-old Peres answered without hesitation: “Went Before His Time.” Most Israelis probably chuckled when they heard this remark, but their real concern is (as one person told me this morning in Tel Aviv), the fact “we have no one to replace him and his generation.”
I spoke to Isaac “Bougie” Herzog, head of the the country’s political opposition and someone who has known Peres almost all his life. Herzog’s father was one of Peres’s close friends and worked with the former president in many different roles. Last night, he lamented that Israel was faced with the same problem the U.S. had had after the founding fathers were gone. I mentioned that that situation did not necessarily go well then for the U.S., and Herzog replied that was Israel’s challenge today: How does the nation move forward without great leader?
Before the funeral began, members of the Joint Arab List, an alliance of Arab parties in Israel, announced they were not going to attend the funeral. “The memory of Peres among the Arab public is different than the narrative discussed in the past few days, and I understand that complex messages such as these are hard to hear the moment after a person dies,” said Ayman Odeh, the group’s chairman told the press on Thursday. “To Peres’s credit, he pursued peace while building a partnership with members of the Arab public, and the evidence is that 90 percent of the Arab public voted for him in the 1996 elections.” Yet “there is strong opposition in Arab society,” Odeh added, “to the architect of the occupation who introduced nukes to the Middle East, and I regret that as president he elected to support Netanyahu and his policies.” The decision of the Arab List not to attend the funeral was met by universal condemnation across the Israeli political spectrum. Even those who naturally sympathetic to the group were perplexed and disappointed by the decision.
The other Arab members of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, however, were present—as was Abu Mazen, head of the Palestinian Authority, despite pressure from his base. In death, Peres accomplished something that has eluded Obama and other world leaders for years: He brought Abu Mazen and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the same place.
As the funeral began, Peres’s daughter Tzvia talked about her two fathers—the public one and the private one; the dad and the politician. She shared moving stories about the private Peres, who few knew well. But what differentiated the speeches were those that spoke referred to Peres the man and those that talked more about his ideas. Both Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin gave moving speeches about the man. They commended Peres’s immense contributions to Israel’s defense, while carefully dancing around the issue of the Dimona nuclear facility. Rivlin gave tribute: “To your last moments, you believed in peace—but that we must have both a strong military, as well as a strong democracy to attain peace.”
Netanyahu spoke of much of the same about Peres: “You gave us a protective shield that will last for generations but at the same time never stopped working for peace,” he said. In a rare, and seemingly candid moment, the prime minister said that he and Peres had disagreed on many things, but in a way, they were both right: Israel needs to be strong, but only peace can bring real security. Netanyahu’s eulogy was personal, as he spoke of his close connection to Peres, which started more than 40 years ago, when Peres gave the eulogy for his brother, Yoni, after the Entebbe operation. They were once rivals, Netanyahu said, but had become close friends. “Shimon, you once said, one of the few times you cried was when you heard my brother had been killed,” Netanyahu said. “Today, I cry for you. I loved you!”
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton spoke next, and transitioned from Peres the man to Peres the visionary. Clinton told the crowd how Peres always looked toward the future, how he was always interested in what it could bring. The former president ended his speech by recalling Peres 80th birthday party, ended with a Jewish-Arab choir singing John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Peres, he explained, could always imagine all people living in harmony, and now Clinton said, it was time for the world to do the same.
Next was Amos Oz, Israel most renowned living author. He had been a friend of Peres for 40 years. He spoke about when they first met four decades ago, on Kibbutz Hulda (where Oz lived at the time). He noted that Peres was a hawk back then and how they argued for hours. Oz talked about Peres’s greatest secret—that he was naïve enough to try to accomplish what no one else dared attempt. Oz spoke was the first to directly tackle the failure of the peace process when he said there is no choice, but to reach peace, since neither Israel, nor the Palestinians are going anywhere. On the other hand, he said, the two sides are not going to suddenly start loving each other. Therefore, the only solution is to split our home, and become a two-family house. Oz ended by divulging that for years, at 5 p.m. on Fridays, he and Peres would speak on the phone for an hour (about the state of the country and what could be done.) Oz promised that as long as he was alive, those conversations would continue.
President Obama spoke last. It says something about the unique relationship between Israel and the United States, that the final eulogy at the state funeral, for someone who is considered the last of the country’s founder fathers was given by an American leader. Obama began his remarks by recognizing Abu Mazen for coming and for reminding the audience that there is “unfinished business of peace.”
He then told the story of Peres’s life, starting from the moment he left Poland—when his grandfather told him: “Shimon, stay a Jew.” Peres was still a teenager “when his grandfather was burned alive by the Nazis in the town where Shimon was born,” Obama said “The synagogue in which he prayed became an inferno. The railroad tracks that had carried him toward the Promised Land also delivered so many of his people to death camps.”
Obama later spoke about the tremendous contributions Peres made toward Israel’s defense, as well as his moves towards peace: “I knew that his pursuit of peace was not naïve,” the president said. “He [Peres] understood, in this war-torn region, where too often Arab youth are taught to hate Israel from an early age—he understood just how hard peace would be. ” Obama reminisced how Peres had once told him that “we [Israel] had won all of our military victories, but had not won the one victory toward which we continue to aspire—to be released from the need to win anymore military victories.” The Jewish people, Obama quoted Peres as saying, were not made to rule another.
It was a moving speech, and one that was very well received by most Israelis observers. A well known commentators said that if only he had come here in 2009 and given that speech the history of the Middle East might have been different. But in an embarrassing after note on Friday, the White House Press Office sent out a correction to the transcript of the President’s remarks. Those remarks listed the location of the ceremony as Mount Herzl, Jerusalem, Israel. The correction crossed Israel out.
During Obama’s prior visit, the White House was careful to only write Jerusalem as the location of his events. Mt. Herzl is in West Jerusalem in the area that was part of the country prior to 1967, but according to the original United Nations partition plan, Jerusalem was intended to be an international city, not a divided one. The U.S. has never de jure recognized any part of the city as Israel, while de facto doing business in Jerusalem as if it is.
Marc Schulman is the editor of HistoryCentral.com
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