US President Barack Obama touches the coffin of former Israeli president Shimon Peres after speaking during his funeral in Jerusalem (AFP Photo/Abir Sultan)
World leaders bid farewell to Israeli elder statesman and Nobel Peace laureate Shimon Peres at his funeral in Jerusalem Friday, with US President Barack Obama hailing him as a giant of the 20th century.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas was among the mourners at Mount Herzl national cemetery and sat in the front row, reportedly at the request of Peres’s family.
Abbas knew Peres well and negotiated with him. In an extremely rare move, he shook hands and spoke briefly with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu upon arrival.
Security forces were on high alert, with roads closed and thousands of officers deployed.
Some 70 countries were represented, with the range of leaders illustrating the respect Peres gained over the years in his transformation from hawk to committed peace advocate.
“In many ways he reminded me of some other giants of the 20th century that I had the honour to meet: men like Nelson Mandela, women like Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth,” said Obama, who wore a black Jewish skullcap.
Leaders of Arab countries were overwhelmingly absent from the funeral.
Peres’s death on Wednesday at the age of 93 after a major stroke drew tributes from around the world for Israel’s last remaining founding father.
An estimated 50,000 people filed past his coffin as it lay in state outside parliament in Jerusalem on Thursday.
– Praise from Netanyahu –
Former US president Bill Clinton was among those who paid their last respects there, appearing moved as he stood in silence before the coffin.
Clinton had helped usher in the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians in the 1990s, which resulted in the Nobel prize for Peres.
He also spoke at the funeral, giving a warm eulogy in which he said Peres’s “critics often claimed he was a naive, overly optimistic dreamer. They were only wrong about the naive part.”
Netanyahu, in his eulogy, called Peres, who had been his political rival, a “great man of the world”.
Obama, who has had a testy personal relationship with Netanyahu, made a point of mentioning Abbas at the start of his eulogy, saying his “presence here is a gesture and a reminder of the unfinished business of peace”.
Obama said later, speaking of Peres, that “the Jewish people weren’t born to rule another people, he would say”.
The US president, who leaves office in January, however sat next to Netanyahu during the ceremony and spoke with him as they walked to Peres’s gravesite.
They have set aside their differences in recent months and negotiated a new $38-billion defence aid package for Israel, with both wanting to show the enduring bond between the two countries.
The funeral took place under a white canopy in the leafy national cemetery, where many Israeli dignitaries are buried.
Around 8,000 police were deployed and preventative arrests of both Jews and Palestinians were made ahead of the funeral to avoid potential disruptions, police said.
– Buried beside Rabin –
The last time such an event was held in Israel was the 1995 funeral for Yitzhak Rabin, Peres’s rival in the Labour party but partner in negotiating the Oslo accords.
Following eulogies, Peres’s coffin was lowered into his grave next to Rabin, who was assassinated by a Jewish extremist opposed to the accords.
In a career spanning seven decades, Peres held nearly every major office, serving twice as prime minister and as president, a mainly ceremonial role, from 2007 to 2014.
He won the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for his role in negotiating the Oslo accords, which envisioned an independent Palestinian state.
He was also an architect of Israel’s nuclear programme, with the country now considered the Middle East’s sole nuclear-armed nation, although it has never declared it.
While Peres is hailed in the West as a peacemaker, many in the Arab world, including among the Palestinians, regard him as a “war criminal”.
They have cited his involvement in successive Arab-Israeli wars, the occupation of Palestinian territory and his support for settlement building before his work on Oslo.
He was also premier in 1996 when more than 100 civilians were killed by Israeli shellfire while sheltering at a UN peacekeepers’ base in the Lebanese village of Qana.
– ‘Brave’ peace partner –
Islamist movement Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip, condemned Abbas’s attendance at the funeral, calling it “a betrayal of the Palestinian blood”.
However, Abbas, who signed the Oslo accords along with Peres, called him a “brave” partner for peace.
There have been very few tributes from Arab nations, although Egypt was represented by Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and Jordan also sent a minister.
They are the only two Arab countries to have signed peace treaties with Israel.
Born in Poland in 1923, Peres emigrated to what was then British-mandated Palestine when he was 11.
He joined the Zionist struggle and met David Ben-Gurion, who would become his mentor and Israel’s first prime minister.
Peres became director general of the nascent defence ministry aged just 29.
After leaving office as president, he had sought to maintain an active schedule, particularly through his Peres Center for Peace.
Despite his reputation as a statesman, Peres never managed to win a national election outright. Many in Israel opposed to the Oslo accords also blamed him for what they saw as their failure.
But in later life, especially during his time as president, he came to be widely embraced.