9/30/2016 President Peres is Buried on Mt Herzl
A story is told, that at the funeral of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (President Shimon Peres' long-time rival and partner), Peres is said to have quipped: "He beat me again!"; as he looked out at the sea of dignitaries who came to pay their final respects. Peres lived for more than 25 years after Rabin and historians will, without doubt, dispute who contributed more to Israel’s history. However, today, on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem, on warm and sunny early fall day, Peres received the funeral he undoubtedly would have wanted. From the moment word spread, shortly after his death that President Obama would be attending, it was clear Peres would receive the type of memorial that the last leader of his generation deserved.
There had been a melancholy feeling throughout Israel these past few days. At the funeral ceremony, Peres’ son, Yoni shared that when he asked his father what he wanted to be inscribed on his tombstone, Peres answered without hesitation – “Went Before His Time,” that from a 93-year-old man. Most Israelis probably chuckled when they heard this remark, but their real concern is (as one person said to me this morning on the streets of Tel Aviv), the fact “we have no one to replace him and his generation.”
I spoke to Bougie Herzog, head of the Opposition and someone who has known Peres almost all his life. Herzog's father was one of Peres' close friends and worked with Peres in many different roles. Last night, after I turned off my recording device, 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 necessary end well for the U.S. Herzog replied that was our challenge today – How do we move forward without our great leaders?
Before the funeral began one strange controversy developed. Members of the Joint Arab List announced they were not going to attend, because they did not buy into the national narrative. All of the other Arab members of the Knesset, however, were present – and probably more importantly, Abu Mazen, head of the Palestinian Authority did attend, despite pressure from home. Peres accomplished, in death, what none of the world's politicians had succeeded in accomplishing – bringing President Abu Mazen and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the same spot.
Peres' 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, known by few. The entire funeral was divided into a different sort of polar dichotomy – a division between remembering the man and remembering his vision. Both President Ruby Rivlin and Prime Minister Netanyahu gave moving speeches about the man. They both commended and revered Peres' immense contributions to Israel's defense, while carefully dancing around the issue of the Dimona nuclear plant. 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 in the same vain, stating about Peres: “You gave us a protective shield that will last for generations, but at the same time never stopped working for peace.” Netanyahu seemingly moved beyond his normal comfort zone, by revealing his belief that in his disagreements with Peres, they were both right – in the Middle East only the strong survive, but, at the same time, only peace can bring us real security. Netanyahu's eulogy was very personal, talking about his close connection to Peres, starting over 40 years ago, when Peres gave the eulogy for his brother, Yoni, after the Entebbe operation. He spoke of how they were once rivals, but had become close friends. It was clear throughout the day that Netanyahu was deeply mourning the loss of a friend. Netanyahu ended his remarks by saying: “Shimon, you once said, one of the few times you cried was when you heard my brother had been killed. Today, I cry for you. I loved you!”
Former President Bill Clinton provided the transition from Peres, the man to Peres, the visionary. Clinton spoke, however, mostly about how Peres always looked toward the future; he was always interested in what the future could bring. Clinton ended his speech by recalling Peres 80th birthday party. That celebration ended with a Jewish-Arab choir, singing John Lennon's "Imagine". Clinton expressed that Peres could always imagine all the people [living in harmony]. And now, it's time for us to imagine ...
The two last non-family members to speak were Israeli author, Amos Oz and President Obama. Oz Israel’s most renowned living authors 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 disclosed how Peres was considered a hawk back then and how they argued for hours. Oz talked about Peres' greatest secret – that he was naive enough to try to accomplish what no one else dared attempt. Oz spoke about the elephant in the room (i.e., peace) and said there is not choice, but to reach peace, since neither we, nor the Palestinians were going anywhere. On the other hand, we 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 5PM on Friday’s, 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.
The last remarks were left to President Obama. It says something about the very unique relationship between Israel and the United States, that the last eulogy at the state funeral, for someone who is considered the last of the founders was given by an American President. Obama began his remarks by recognizing Abu Mazen for coming and for reminding us that there is unfinished business. Obama started out by saying:
"I could not be more honored to be in Jerusalem, to say farewell to my friend Shimon Peres, who showed us that justice and hope are at the heart of the Zionist idea." Obama told the narrative of Peres' life, starting from the moment he left Poland – when his Grandfather told him: “Shimon, stay a Jew”. Obama then mentioned that Peres was still a teenager “when his grandfather was burned alive; when the synagogue that he prayed in was turned into an inferno by the Nazis and the tracks that had taken him to Palestine, took so many more to the death camps."
Obama spoke about the tremendous contributions Peres had made towards Israel’s defense; the most direct comment ever made by an American President about Israel’s nuclear capability. Obama then got to the heart of his message - "I knew that his pursuit of peace was not naive. Every Yom Hashoah he read of the names of those he lost." Obama went on to lament, "He [Peres] understood, in this war-torn region, where Arab Youth are taught at an early age, how difficult it would be to achieve peace." He 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."
Obama quoted Peres, saying that the Jewish people were not made to rule another people. From the very first day, we are against slaves and masters.
Obama continued ... the dream of Zionism will be best protected if the Palestinians have a state of their own. Obama referred to himself as "the 10th U.S. President to fall victim to the charms of Peres. Obama voiced how Peres believed that if you look at the arc of history, you are better off with hope, than fear.
Obama waxed poetic over the strange personal connection they had – despite being two people who could not have grown up in more different circumstance.
“As an American, as a Christian, and a man partially of African descent, born in Hawaii – a place that could not be further from where Shimon spent his youth in Poland, I took great pleasure in my friendship with this older and wiser man. We shared a loved of books, of history, (and like most politician), a love of hearing ourselves talk. But I believe that somehow, I could see myself in his story and maybe he in mine. For all of our difference, we had lived such surprising lives. Considering where we had started, it was remarkable for us to be meeting in the White House, or here in Israel.”
Obama observed that "Shimon's work was now in the hands of the next generation in Israel and among its friends." The President ended his remarks by saying: "Shimon always said– 'Let's choose life!' Todah raba, chaver yakar – (Much thanks, dear friend.)
Peres Coffin is covered