An Enormous Funeral for an Enigmatic Israeli Leader
One of the best known and most widely admired Israeli statesmen died on Sept. 28. After suffering a massive stroke two weeks earlier, Shimon Peres – former president, prime minister and minister of defense — to name just a few of his myriad roles – died at age 93. His family was at his side.
What may have been the most extraordinary international funeral in Israel’s history was held on Sept. 30.
For two days and nights after Peres’ passing, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Israel Defense Forces, the Public Security Ministry, hundreds of journalists, pundits, protocol experts and an innumerable array of various professionals worked around the clock to welcome the arrival of delegations representing some 80 countries.
Highway 1, the primary route from Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport to Jerusalem, was blocked both ways for several hours as dignitaries poured in from around the world. Barricades surrounded Jerusalem hotels. Security forces appeared on every corner. Motorcades, with sirens blaring, wended their way through town, ferrying vans full of jet-lagged diplomats.
Approximately 8,000 police officers and soldiers secured the city of Jerusalem – miraculously without incident.
On that Friday, I had a long-standing lunch appointment at the Mamilla Mall – a 20-minute walk from my apartment. The question in my mind wasn’t the usual concern about being on time. I simply wasn’t sure whether I could get past four of the heavily guarded five-star hotels in which international diplomats and media were being housed.
As it turned out, I was able to find a taxi. During my brief journey, the driver cranked up President Barack Obama’s solemn tones to full volume on the radio. I was a captive audience to the United States president’s artful fusion of adulation for Peres and thinly veiled antipathy for Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu.
From dawn till dusk, Peres was praised in glowing remembrances, penned and spoken by friends and even a few foes. As his body lay in state outside the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament) the day before the funeral, some 50,000 citizens and foreign guests formed somber queues to pay their respects.
Among the dignitaries who made their way to Israel for the funeral — including Obama, former President Bill Clinton and Britain’s Prince Charles — were President Francois Hollande, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, President of the Russian Federation Council Valentina Matviyenko, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Brazilian Foreign Minister Jose Serra.
Even Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, was granted permission to attend the funeral. He did so – and shook hands with Netanyahu – despite the biting criticism of many of his own people.
Stephen Harper, Canada’s former prime minister, accurately described Peres as a man who didn’t always enjoy the same admiration in life that he did in death. Harper wrote, “To be sure, glory was often not forthcoming. To speak of the career of Shimon Peres is to speak of a life in which defeat and setback consistently accompanied success and progress. There were lost arguments, lost battles and lost elections, but never lost hope.”
In fact, it’s very true that despite the effusive eulogies that streamed forth at Peres’ funeral, he remains a controversial figure in Israel.
As a young man, he entered the political world as a disciple of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who oversaw the country’s tumultuous, often violent beginnings.
Despite Peres’ reputation as a man of peace – frequently celebrated by those who promote “peace at any price” with the surrounding Muslim communities – in the nascent state’s earliest years, Peres was responsible for laying some of its most essential military foundations.
Not only did he forge indispensable arms deals, particularly with France, but he also played an essential role in the development of Israel’s own military industry. Today, the Jewish state has become a world leader in the innovation and production of cutting-edge defense technology.
Peres is also credited by many for the clandestine origins of Israel’s nuclear research projects – efforts that may (or may not) have led to a formidable array of nuclear weaponry.
While he served as minister of defense, in 1976, Peres wholeheartedly championed the daring commando raid that successfully freed more than a hundred hostages from Uganda’s Entebbe Airport.
This brilliant raid on Entebbe established Israel as a nation of innovative and relentless warriors who refused to tolerate terrorism against Israelis in particular and Jews in general.
Indeed, at Peres’ funeral, Netanyahu described his own first meeting with Peres, “here, on this very hill 40 years ago.”
Two days after the bold rescue operation in Entebbe in which my brother gave his life, Yoni’s funeral was held here. As defense minister, together with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon approved that operation.
At the funeral, he delivered a deeply stirring eulogy, which I will never forget. It was the first time I ever met him. My late parents, my brother and I were profoundly moved by what he said about Yoni, about the operation, about the bond with our forefathers and about the pride of our nation. From that point on, a special bond was formed between us.
In Peres’ later years, the path he forged toward political success proved to be a rocky one. As one of my friends remarked, for most of his career, he was “always a bridesmaid, never a bride.” Despite the many lofty titles he sought and sometime enjoyed, he experienced more than a few humiliating defeats.
The Oslo Accords – for which Peres, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO President Yasser Arafat were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize – have proved to be his most controversial accomplishment.
The deal was furtively initiated by Peres in secret Oslo meetings with PLO representatives before the Rabin government reluctantly recognized it. And since its enactment in 1993, the Oslo Accords have proved to be an ongoing tragedy for Israelis and Arabs alike.
Nevertheless, Peres’ quest for peace continues to be revered by much of the world. Yet, strangely, the very nations with whom he sought reconciliation continue to reject not only his dreams, but also the Jewish state he served.
As Herb Keinon wrote in The Jerusalem Post,
Peres had a vision – a vision embraced by the world, as evidence by the number of leaders who arrived. How ironic, therefore, that the objects of this vision – the Arab world – were so noticeably absent.
For the last 30 years of his life, Peres tried to forge a new reality with Israel’s neighbors.
World leaders beat a path to Mount Herzl on Friday because they identified and supported his vision of peace with the Arab world, and because they wanted to send a message of encouragement to Israelis to keep going down that path.
But the people with whom he had hoped to make peace were, for the most part, missing from the crowd. That, too, sends a message.
If the Joint List MKs boycott the funeral of Peres, the man who preached coexistence; if Jordan’s King Abdullah II, whose father had a close relationship with Peres, can’t make the journey across the Allenby Bridge to pay last respects, then why go through the motions?
It won’t work.
In the meantime, other less-than-glowing reports have also emerged. For example, in The New York Times, Tom Segev described Peres as a Polish-born outsider who never really fit into Israeli society.
“For most of his life, he had to endure widespread hatred from his people, and, even worse, mockery,” Segev explained. “Throughout his career, he gave ample reason to associate him with petty party politics and sleazy intrigue. But in reality, he was motivated not by a lust for power or by greed, but by an outsider’s desperate quest for his people’s love.”
More recently, Israel’s Ynet recounted some of the angry words spoken about Peres by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, whose assassination ended their lengthy political feud and elevated Rabin’s rival to his long-sought role as prime minister. “The solid base assumption upon which this insatiable underminer, Shimon Peres, has based his delusion was [the idea] that between him and the prime minister position stood no obstacle save for Yitzhak Rabin.”
Peres has been depicted as hero and hypocrite, statesman and spoiler, time-honored diplomat and treacherous competitor. However, for most observers, he remains enigmatic – a man of war and a man of peace; a patriot, a poet and above all else, a puzzle.
In such a time as this, it is perhaps best to refrain from speculation. Most will simply remember Peres for his years of service to the Jewish State, his tireless energy and his final role as a beloved elder statesman.
As for judging the man himself?
Never more appropriate than at Peres’ passing is the traditional Jewish response to news of a death – any death. In Hebrew, it is Baruch Dayan Emet.
This final declaration simply honors God:
“Blessed is the true Judge.”
This article was first published by the Philos Project.