Shimon Peres' Unfinished Business Hangs Over His Funeral

The best eulogies were those that addressed not only what Peres had accomplished, but also what remains left to be done.

U.S. President Barack Obama stands next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the funeral of former Israeli president Shimon Peres at Mount Herzl Cemetery in Jerusalem, September 30, 2016.
Emil Salman

“Today we will be celebrating Shimon’s work. He always knew he would only get his due credit after he died,” said one of Shimon Peres’ devoted aides at the entrance of Mount Herzl, an hour before the funeral began. But while many of his long-suffering supporters were there to remember his seven decades of service, it was President Barack Obama who in the concluding eulogy, sounded a discordant note by speaking of “unfinished business." And in many ways, this encapsulated Peres’ life better than any other praise which was heaped upon his flag-wrapped coffin. Because Shimon Peres always had unfinished business and there were constant reminders of that all around. 

Read more on Shimon Peres: How Peres faced down generals to build Israel's nuclear program | Peres pursued peace for sake of Israel's values, and Palestinians' dignity | Hawk to dove, pro-settlements to pro-peace: Shimon Peres was it all | The countless contradictions of the late and great Shimon Peres

In many ways, the state funeral was a very non-Israeli affair. The organization ticked perfectly, queues at the entrance were short and orderly, there was adequate shade and none of the eulogizers made a gaffe, like the famous “we ate a few things and we drank a few things” eulogy by President Ezer Weizmann at Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral. But Peres wasn’t perfect and Israel certainly isn’t and the best of the eulogies at his funeral were the ones accurately describing all the unfinished business. 

Unsurprisingly, President Reuven Rivlin’s eulogy, with the exception of those of Peres’ three children, was the most evidently heartfelt. Never his political partner, Rivlin said that “we wanted to believe that perhaps you were right. Believe me, it was not easy to refuse your optimism." Rivlin also did the correct thing by recalling the abuse his own Likud Party had heaped on Peres for so many years. “We will ask your forgiveness. It was permitted to disagree with you. Your opponents had a duty to express their opinion. However, there were years in which red lines were crossed between ideological disputes and words and deeds which had no place.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took a similar tone, admitting that “Shimon and I disagreed about many things." He then proceeded to try and paper over those disagreements with stories of “night-long” conversations in the president’s residence, ending in the conclusion that “we were both right” and that “Shimon also reached the conclusion that no one camp has a monopoly on truth." As if the opinionated Peres could ever reach such a conclusion. Or Netanyahu for that matter.

It was left to Amos Oz, Peres’ only true friend on the stage, to articulate what the deceased had really been about. When the two had first met all those decades ago, he said. “He was still a hawk from the land of the hawks." But he changed over the years and realized that “there is no choice but to divide the land. We are not going anywhere and the Palestinians are not going anywhere. So we have to divide our home in to two apartments." But, he lamented, “where are the brave leaders who will stand up and make those things a reality. Where are Shimon Peres’ successors?”

When they first met, Oz was the young firebrand writer and Peres was already a veteran politician. Today at seventy-seven, he is also a little stooped and faltering. In his clipped and defiant sentences, he was obviously relishing playing the angry prophet, taking a bit of Peres’ old mantle. But Oz, once a voice to be reckoned with, is also now suffering from the Peres curse – he is more appreciated abroad than in contemporary Israel. Still an active writer, there was though the feeling that Oz was also bidding farewell to Israel. At least the Israel he knew. 

It was also a farewell to Israel from Barack Obama, on his second and last visit as president. Some in Jerusalem and Washington are still speculating that Obama, in the last weeks of his administration, will deliver a parameter-setting speech outlying his vision for the resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Whether or not that happens, his eulogy for Peres served to define his view of the solution. He said that Peres “believed the Zionist idea would be best protected when Palestinians too had a state of their own,” and that he had said to him “Jews were not born to rule over another people. We have never believed in masters and slaves." Obama went on to speak of the flaws in both Israel and the United States’ early chapters, which they both overcame because “democracy was embedded in us from the start and have the capacity to do what’s right.” It was obvious, that he was equating slavery in the U.S. with the occupation of the Palestinians. 

Obama was also the only one to acknowledge the presence of the ghost at the funeral, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, saying that his arrival was “a gesture and a reminder of the unfinished business of peace.” Netanyahu who had name-checked the heads of state at the start of his eulogy mentioned even the Grand-Duke of Luxembourg but had no words for Abbas. It was left to a senior IDF general, to say on the sidelines that “Abu Mazen [Abbas] did a very brave thing in coming today." Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah a-Sisi weren’t so brave, sending ministers in their place. 

By Obama’s lofty standards of rhetoric, this wasn’t one of his best speeches, but it was also notable for being a more eloquent articulation of how true Zionism does not belong to the nationalist right-wing, than anything said in a long time by a senior member of Israel’s left-wing.

Peres, he said, “showed us that justice and hope are at the heart of the Zionist idea. A free life in a homeland regained. A secure life in a nation that can defend itself, by itself. A full life in friendship with nations that can be counted on as allies, always.” 

Obama was also the serving U.S. president to come closer than any other to acknowledging Israel’s nuclear capability, when he said that “his skill secured Israel's strategic position." He also mentioned that he was the tenth U.S. president to host Peres in the Oval Office. The first had been John Kennedy, in a fateful meeting in 1963 when Peres came up with the formulation of Israel’s nuclear ambiguity.

Obama also made no bones about connecting Peres’ Zionism with the memory of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism “but it would never harden his heart. It would never extinguish his faith. Instead it broadened his moral imagination. It gave him the capacity to see all people as deserving of dignity and respect. It helped him see, not just the world how it is, but the world how it should be.” 

The grumblings from the opposition that Labor Party chairman Isaac Herzog had not been invited to speak were irrelevant. Obama did the job better than anything Herzog could do. Together with Oz, he formed the true opposition at the funeral of Peres, who spent much longer as a leader of opposition than he did as prime minister. 

There were less pleasant sides of Peres on exhibition at the funeral. Bill Clinton, who had been asked to speak for old times sake, ad libbed through a forgettable eulogy, talking about having “a typical Peres night – a reminder of how many former statesmen find themselves on the corporate speaking circuit. There were other such relics sitting there. Like former British prime minister's Tony Blair and David Cameron and French ex-President Nicola Sarkozy, peering behind the shoulder of Francois Hollande, who he hopes to replace once again in a few months. 

This wasn’t a “working funeral." Most of the leaders didn’t hang around long enough for a proper meeting with Netanyahu. It was more the kind of event where anyone who is, or was, somebody, wants to be seen. Like Prince Charles sporting his silk kippa with the Prince of Wales feathers picked out in gold and the clueless pretty Justin Trudeau, so obviously out of his depth. 

And then there were the tycoons, reminders of another less appealing part of Peres’ career - his love of hobnobbing with billionaires. There was the richest man in Israel, gas tycoon Yitzhak Teshuva, and the bankrupt and convicted former tycoon Nochi Dankner. And of course there were the big political donors from abroad. Peres (and Clinton’s) benefactor Haim Saban and of course Netanyahu’s benefactor, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. A man who could literally be described as having the opposite values and ideals to those of Peres in just about everything. 

With Peres now gone, there are only two former Israeli prime ministers still alive. Ehud Olmert wasn’t there. He’s in prison for corruption and on the day Peres died, received another eight months added to his sentence by the Supreme Court. Ehud Barak, Peres’ successor as Labor leader in 1999 and a bitter rival, was also inexplicably absent. 

But the greatest absence was of the woman in Peres’ life. 

As he was laid to rest in the prime minister and president section on Mount Herzl, between two old rivals, and partners, Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir, it was hard not to notice that his grave had been dug in the middle of a plot originally intended for a couple. But Sonia Peres, who passed away in 2011, is buried in her childhood home of Ben Shemen. The place where she first met the young Shimon Persky. 

She refused to follow him to the president’s residence in Jerusalem, and the couple separated after over sixty years of marriage. Each of their children, Tzvia, Yoni and Chemi, spoke of how it was Sonia who brought them up. But in death, Peres, ended up as in life. Among politicians, instead of with Sonia. He still had unfinished business with them.