Visitors in their thousands flooded the Knesset plaza Thursday to pay their last respects to former President Shimon Peres. One after another they stood facing the bier, took out their phones to document the moment and continued on.
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Retirees from Kiryat Ono, teenagers in youth-movement uniforms and children from soccer teams sponsored by the Peres Center all wound their way toward the coffin. Knesset officials estimated that by noon some 10,000 people had come, a smattering of them Arabs and religious Zionists wearing their trademark knitted kippot.
Toward midnight it was announced that 50,000 people had come, after visiting hours had been extended to 11 P.M.
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On hand were a raft of past and present ministers and Knesset members. Two former ministers from the right, Joshua Matza and Uzi Landau, spent a few minutes at the bier. Former ministers from the Labor Party – Avraham Katz-Oz, Uzi Baram and Ra’anan Cohen – who stayed in touch with Peres in recent years, returned to the Knesset for a day. Behind them came MK Nissan Slomiansky (Habayit Hayehudi), who silently read a chapter of Psalms.
The event began at around 9 A.M. with a modest ceremony: A squad from the Knesset Guard carried Peres’ coffin into the plaza. President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, opposition leader Isaac Herzog and Speaker Yuli Edelstein laid wreaths at the bier.
Many MKs who came to the plaza weren’t allowed to take part in the ceremony; they had to wait behind a glass wall. “This is the essence of officialdom,” said former Speaker Shevach Weiss.
“We stand here, behind the glass, and the kingdom is the first to eulogize the former president. The president, prime minister and Knesset speaker are all people who all along the way opposed the basic idea that the deceased led.”
Around noon, former U.S. President Bill Clinton arrived at the plaza immediately after landing in Israel. At first he stood by himself at the bier, then Rivlin and Edelstein joined him. The three circled the coffin. Clinton placed his hand over his heart as a farewell gesture.
Herzog, the head of the Zionist Union alliance and the Labor Party, gathered the party’s MKs for a special meeting in the Knesset. On Wednesday, the Ministerial Committee on Ceremonies and Symbols had told Herzog that despite his role as opposition leader, there wouldn’t be time for him to speak at the funeral. Herzog opted not to complain, but others expressed their anger for him.
“He’s the chairman of the Labor Party, the successor to Peres,” said MK Yoel Hasson (Zionist Union), a former chairman of the Likud Youth Movement. Hasson told the other MKs: “In the house I grew up in, Peres wasn’t an admired figure. The opposite. Today I’m possessed by a fear that we’re parting from optimism and the last courageous leader.”
Herzog preferred not to talk about Peres’ abandonment of Labor and switch to the Kadima party over a decade ago. But MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union), speaking after Herzog, didn’t hesitate to mention it. “We both left a political home in order to establish Kadima, in order to advance what we believed in with Ariel Sharon,” she said.
“With Kadima, Peres turned into a winner and became the president of Israel.”