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World leaders on Friday bid farewell to the last leader of Israel’s founding generation, Shimon Peres, celebrating the former president and prime minister at his funeral and voicing regret for the fact that he did not live to see a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
But Peres, who died Wednesday at 93, would possibly have been cheered that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attended the event – a request that was accepted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who shook hands with Abbas before the ceremony. At the behest of the Peres family, the Palestinian leader sat in the front row.
During their encounter, Abbas told Netanyahu that "it’s been a long time since we last met" – six years. Netanyahu responded: “I very much appreciate that you came to the funeral.”
Dignitaries from 70 countries were on hand, including U.S. President Barack Obama, who said Peres “showed us that justice and hope are at the heart of the Zionist idea.”
“A free life in a homeland regained, a secure life of a nation that can defend itself by itself, a full life of a friendship with nations who can be counted on as allies, always This was Shimon Peres’ life,” Obama said.
“This is the State of Israel. This is the story of the Jewish people. Shimon once said the message of the Jewish people to mankind is that faith and vision will triumph over all adversity.”
Obama, wearing a kippa at the podium with Israeli flags behind him, noted that “the Jewish people weren’t born to rule another people.” Referring to Peres, Obama said, “He would say: We are against slaves and masters,” adding that Abbas’ presence at the ceremony was “a gesture and a reminder of the unfinished business of peace.”
As Obama described Peres, “Even in the face of terrorist attacks, repeated disappointments at the negotiating table, he insisted that Palestinians must be seen as equal in dignity to Jews and therefore equal in self-determination. He believed that Israel would be best protected when Palestinians had a state of their own.”
Netanyahu called Peres a great man and thanked the world leaders on hand, who included former British prime ministers David Cameron and Tony Blair, Britain’s Prince Charles, French President Francois Hollande and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. They joined the crowd of over 500 mourners under a large white tent at the Mount Herzl cemetery, where Israel’s greats are buried.
“That so many leaders came from around the world to bid farewell to Shimon is a testament to his optimism, his quest for peace and his love for Israel and the people of Israel. I deeply appreciate the honor you have shown Shimon,” Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu summed up Peres’ legacy. “In the stormy Middle East where only the strong survive, peace will only be achieved by constantly ensuring our strength,” Netanyahu said. “But the goal isn’t power, the goal is survival and coexistence.”
On a personal note, Netanyahu referred to how Peres, who helped mastermind the 1976 commando rescue of Israeli hostages in Uganda, reacted to the news that Netanyahu’s brother was the only Israeli soldier killed in the raid.
“Shimon my friend, you told of how one of the only times you ever shed a tear was when you received the bitter news of the death of my brother, Yoni, in Entebbe,” Netanyahu said.
“You cried then, Shimon, and I weep for you today. I loved you. We all love you. Rest in peace, Shimon, a dear man, a great leader. You will be enshrined in the hearts of the nation and I dare say in the hearts of all nations.”
Obama and former U.S. President Bill Clinton also honored Peres as a dear friend; Clinton said the Israeli impressed other leaders by refusing to lose hope. “I always was in awe of his endless capacity to look beyond even the most crushing setbacks in order to seize the possibilities,” Clinton said.
Peres suffered a key setback when the process of the Oslo Accords, which he helped negotiate as foreign minister, stalled after the promising signing ceremony on the White House lawn in September 1993. Still, Peres, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat won the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts.
At the funeral, Israeli novelist Amoz Oz said Israel had no choice but to pursue peace with the Palestinians to achieve a two-state solution. “Where are the brave leaders who will stand up and make these things a reality?” Oz said. “Where are Shimon Peres’ successors?”
In the decades after Israel’s founding in 1948, Peres was key in arming the Israel Defense Forces with advanced weaponry, in large part thanks to his links with the French. He helped develop Israel’s military industries, air force and nuclear program at the research center in Dimona. Later he took over former Foreign Minister Abba Eban’s role as Israel’s liberal face to the West, but was criticized for his part in letting early settlements be built in the West Bank in the 1970s.
President Reuven Rivlin called his predecessor’s death “the end of an era,” and apologized for strident right-wing criticism of Peres’ role in the Oslo process.
“You taught many around the world to love the State of Israel,” Rivlin said. “This is a sad moment. The journey of your dreams that began in Poland ends in Jerusalem, a dream that became a reality in and of itself.”
Also at the ceremony was casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a major Republican and Trump campaign donor and a key supporter of Netanyahu. Also present was another billionaire – Democratic party donor Haim Saban, who flew to Israel in his private jet with Clinton.