Monday, 3 October 2016

Shimon Peres (1923 – 2016)

Shimon Peres (August 2, 1923 – September 28, 2016)  was an Israeli statesman and the ninth President of Israel, serving from 2007 to 2014. Peres served twice as the Prime Minister of Israel and twice as Interim Prime Minister, and he was a member of twelve cabinets in a political career spanning nearly 70 years. Peres was elected to the Knesset in November 1959 and, except for a three-month-long hiatus in early 2006, served continuously until 2007, when he became President, serving in the role for another seven years. At the time of his retirement in 2014, he was the world's oldest head of state. He was considered the last link to Israel's founding generation.
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Rick Noack, National Post Wire Services | September 30, 2016

JERUSALEM — It was only a brief moment, but the handshake between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will become one of the defining moments of the Shimon Peres funeral on Friday.   Peres died Wednesday at the age of 93.

Direct encounters between the two leaders are so rare, that their last meeting in 2015 was widely described as a “one-in-five-years handshake.”

“Long time, long time,” Abbas was quoted as saying to Netanyahu on Friday.  The Israeli Prime Minister responded: “It’s something that I appreciate very much on behalf of our people and on behalf of us.”

Soon afterward, Abbas was criticized by some for his welcoming gesture.  Social media commentators critical of Israel called him a “sellout,” a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and one argued that “the Arab world won’t be happy.”

To some, the fact that one of the most newsworthy moments during the Shimon Peres funeral was a handshake between a Palestinian and Israeli leader, symbolizes the failure of peace efforts in the Middle East.   Peres shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for his role in finding an agreement on a peace framework between Palestinians and Israelis.

Despite their friendly encounter in Jerusalem on Friday, Netanyahu and Abbas have not directly negotiated since 2014, when the last official exchange took place.   The two leaders have also not held direct talks on controversial Jewish settlements since 2010.

Although Israeli media outlets speculated in advance about the possibility of a new handshake in Jerusalem on Friday, Haaretz newspaper argued that the gesture would have little impact.  “Even if Abbas does shake Netanyahu’s hand during the funeral, it is still unclear if the event will turn into an opportunity for an official meeting between the two leaders,” the paper wrote Thursday.

In addition to Abbas and Netanyahu, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, along with former prime ministers Jean Chrétien and Stephen Harper, were at the Mount Herzl national cemetery in Jerusalem.

Trudeau sat beside the Mexican president in the second row of mourners while Harper, Chrétien, interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose and Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion sat together in the next row.

U.S. President Barack Obama and former president Bill Clinton delivered emotional eulogies, but Trudeau was not among the speakers at the solemn outdoor ceremony held in sweltering heat under a white tent.

Obama said that Peres showed that “justice and hope” are at the heart of Israel’s Zionist ideals.   “Shimon never saw his dream of peace fulfilled,” Obama said. “And yet he did not stop dreaming, and he did not stop working.”   Obama described the unlikely friendship he forged with Peres given their vastly different backgrounds.

“It was so surprising to see the two of us, where we had started, talking together in the White House, meeting here in Israel,” he said.  “I think both of us understood that we were here only because in some way we reflected the magnificent story of our nations.”   He said Peres never tired, never dwelled on the past, and always seemed to have another project in the works.   “It is that faith, that optimism, that belief, even when all the evidence is to the contrary, that tomorrow can be better that makes us not just honour Shimon Peres, but love him,” he said.

“The last of the founding generation is now gone,” he added. “Toda rabah haver yakar,” he said, Hebrew for “thank you so much dear friend.”   In an emotional eulogy, Bill Clinton described Peres as a “wide champion of our common humanity.”   Clinton was president when Peres negotiated a historic interim peace accord with the Palestinians in 1993.  He described a warm, 25-year friendship and dismissed critics who described Peres as a naïve dreamer.   He recalled a meeting with Peres where Israeli and Arab children sang together John Lennon’s “Imagine.”    “He started life as Israel’s brightest student, became its best teacher and ended up its biggest dreamer,” said Clinton.

“He lived 93 years in a state of constant wonder over the unbelievable potential of all the rest of us to rise above our wounds, our resentments, our fears to make the most of today and claim the promise of tomorrow,” he said.    It was an emotional return for Clinton, who eulogized Rabin at the same spot in Jerusalem following his assassination 21 years ago.

Former Canadian cabinet minister Stockwell Day attended the ceremony and said he hoped for a day when Israel would realize Peres’ hope for peace.   As the funeral began, Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion sent out a tweet that said “Canada has lost a friend, Israel a father. Rest in peace, Shimon.” Netanyahu said the gathering of world leaders was a testament to Peres’ optimism, quest for peace and love for Israel. “He was a great man of Israel. He was a great man of the world. Israel grieves for him. The world grieves for him,” Netanyahu said.

Peres, Israel’s leading dove, and the hard-line Netanyahu were fierce political rivals and had vastly different world visions.  But Netanyahu said they enjoyed a strong personal relationship and described Peres as a man of vision.   “I loved you. We all loved you. Farewell Shimon. Dear man. Great leader,” he said.

Peres’ casket lay in state on Thursday outside the parliament building, where thousands of people, including Clinton, came to pay their respects. Early Friday, an honour guard escorted the casket, together with Peres’ family, along the short route to the cemetery.

After the funeral, the casket was led to the gravesite carried by eight members of an honour guard and led by soldiers carrying wreaths. Netanyahu and Obama chatted along the way, also talking with Peres’ family. An Israeli flag was removed from the casket as it was lowered into the ground in a plot alongside two other prime ministers, Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir.

With dignitaries seated around, soldiers passed bags of dirt to each other to cover the casket, and a military cantor recited the prayer for the dead.  After it was in the ground, it was covered in wreaths.

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