A few minutes before Shimon Peres’ funeral, as the plaza on Mount Herzl filled up with kings, presidents and prime ministers from the world over, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas bumped into each other.
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It was a hasty meeting – only 50 seconds, a handshake and a few polite words. Most of all, there was the great embarrassment that the two leaders, who found it hard to look each other in the eye, conveyed to anyone watching the surrealistic show.
Every Israeli politician who spoke completely ignored Abbas, but Netanyahu’s ignoring him stood out. At the beginning of his speech, which strangely was in English, he was careful to mention the Duke of Luxembourg but didn’t find room even to greet the Palestinian president who, despite the barrage of criticism along the PA political spectrum, showed humanity and courage and attended the funeral.
Most Israeli speakers all but ignored Peres’ main legacy of the past 25 years – the Oslo Accords. The only one who mentioned Oslo was a writer, Amos Oz.
The first to speak was President Reuven Rivlin. He talked mostly about Peres and to Peres. Among his requests for forgiveness, what stood out most was his penitence for the right’s harsh incitement against Peres when the peace process was in full bloom in the mid-1990s.
Rivlin discussed how much Peres loved history. He “did not wallow in the past and did not indulge in a feeling of self-righteousness” but focused on the opportunities the future held for him. A bit later, when Netanyahu spoke, his speech was pure indulgence in self-righteousness.
Unlike Rivlin, Netanyahu didn’t apologize for anything – not for standing on that Zion Square balcony before the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, not for the slander and personal attacks before the 1996 election, and not for the harassment and little humiliations that Peres suffered at his hand during Peres’ final years as president.
Instead of apologies, we received a rewriting of history and made-up stories about the closeness, friendship and endless love between the two. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton couldn’t help commenting on this in his own speech. He mentioned that this same friendship, if it ever existed, came only after Netanyahu’s fierce and aggressive campaign against Peres.
Netanyahu said he and Peres never hid the disagreements between them, but his entire speech was an attempt to hide the main disagreement between them on the peace process. This conflict only heightened in recent years.
As he did in the past with Rabin, Netanyahu used quote after quote from Peres to justify his own positions. He claimed that during a meeting between the two, he argued with Peres about what was more important for Israel, security or peace. According to Netanyahu, Peres said, “If there’s peace there will be security.”
“We were both right,” Netanyahu concluded.
Despite Netanyahu’s Orwellian statements, on the main issue that has divided Israeli society for 50 years since 1967, it’s impossible to have a situation in which both Netanyahu and Peres are both right. For eight years now, Netanyahu has spoken endlessly about peace but has done nothing. In his public life, Peres didn’t speak a great deal about security but he did more on the issue than any Israeli since Israel’s founding.
Oz, who spoke a few minutes later, uncovered what Netanyahu tried to mask. Oz melted the schmaltz that the speakers before him piled on. Oz spoke about peace with the Palestinians as the main motif of Peres’ legacy – without any confusion or attempt to confuse. Peace, not innovation, high-tech or 3D glasses.
Oz said “peace is possible, essential and unavoidable,” and that there was no choice but to divide the Land of Israel. He threw a barb at Netanyahu too: “In their heart of hearts, all sides know this simple truth. Where are the brave leaders who will stand up and make these things a reality? Where are Shimon Peres’ successors?”
The last speaker was U.S. President Barack Obama. Like Oz, Obama needed to remind Netanyahu that Abbas and the Palestinians exist. He said early on that Abbas’ “presence here is a gesture and a reminder of the unfinished business of peace.”
Obama reached his own conclusion in the argument between Peres and Netanyahu. He didn’t think both were right. He praised Peres for understanding that Israel would only be truly secure based on peace agreements with its neighbors. He even hinted at the comparison between the end of the occupation of the Palestinians, which Peres strove for, and the end of slavery for blacks in the United States.
Like Clinton, Obama rejected everyone on the right who characterized Peres over the years as delusional or cut off from reality. “And I know from my conversations with him that his pursuit of peace was never naive,” said Obama, adding that the responsibility for fulfilling this dream rested on Peres’ heirs.
Obama described Peres as a giant of the 20th century and mentioned him alongside Nelson Mandela. Obama stressed how Peres insisted on discussing things in depth; Peres shunned sound bites and wasn’t influenced by opinion polls. Instead, he was convinced in the justice of his path and strove to fulfill his goals.
Even if it wasn’t completely accurate, Obama’s barb at Netanyahu was clear. For years, Obama has been deeply convinced that the only thing motivating Netanyahu’s decision-making is his political survival.
To a certain extent, Obama’s speech marked the continuation of his message at the UN General Assembly in New York a week ago. Obama described himself and Peres as twin souls in their worldview. Peres too saw the world as it should be and tried to change reality accordingly.
Obama, like Peres, at least in his last decades, is a progressive and liberal who shuns fear-mongering and prefers to focus on the hope that tomorrow will be better.
In his speech, Obama portrayed Peres as part of the Israel he grew up in, as part of an exemplary society that Obama learned about from his liberal Jewish friends in Chicago, as part of a Zionism with justice, peace and hope at its core.
Obama and many others in the large camp he represents in the United States have long felt that this Israel they remember is disappearing. Peres’ passing, even if it’s only a symbolic event, could strengthen this feeling even more.