Bill Clinton pays last respects to Shimon Peres in Jerusalem
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Bill Clinton pays last respects to Shimon Peres in Jerusalem

Former US president joins thousands at the Knesset, where the late president lies in state ahead of the funeral Friday

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Former US President Bill Clinton paid his respects to former Israeli president and prime minister Shimon Peres immediately after landing in Israel on Thursday, viewing the late statesman’s coffin where it lay in state at the Knesset.

Clinton drove directly from Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv to the Knesset in Jerusalem, where Peres’s casket has been placed. He was welcomed to the Knesset with a “warm embrace” from President Reuven Rivlin, according to the Knesset spokesman. Rivlin, together with Speaker Yuli Edelstein, then accompanied Clinton to the Knesset plaza to pay his last respects to Israel`s ninth president.

Clinton is one of dozens of world leaders and dignitaries expected to land in Israel Thursday ahead of the funeral at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl cemetery on Friday.

Peres died early Wednesday at the age of 93, some two weeks after suffering a massive stroke.

Former US president Bill Clinton, Israeli president Reuven Rivlin and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein at the Knesset, September 29, 2016. (Yizhak Harari/Shimon Rivkin/Knesset Spokesman's office)
Former US president Bill Clinton, Israeli president Reuven Rivlin and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein at the Knesset, September 29, 2016. (Yizhak Harari/Shimon Rivkin/Knesset Spokesman’s office)

Clinton was a longtime friend of Peres since his term in the White House during the height of the Oslo peace process in the 1990s.

In 2013, Peres conferred on Clinton the Presidential Medal of Distinction, Israel’s highest civilian honor.

Former US president Bill Clinton pays his respects at the lying in state of former Israeli president and prime minister Shimon Peres, September 29, 2016. (Yizhak Harari/Shimon Rivkin/Knesset Spokesman's office)
Former US president Bill Clinton pays his respects at the lying in state of former Israeli president and prime minister Shimon Peres, September 29, 2016. (Yizhak Harari/Shimon Rivkin/Knesset Spokesman’s office)

“When I call you my friend I know that I speak for the entire people of Israel,” Peres said at the award ceremony in Jerusalem. “Your unwavering commitment to the Jewish people and your moving support for the State of Israel will always be cherished by each and every one of us.”

In his acceptance speech, Clinton thanked Peres, calling him “my personal friend and a global treasure.”

President Shimon Peres awards former president Bill Clinton with the Presidential Medal of Distinction, Wednesday, June 19, 2013 (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)
President Shimon Peres awards former president Bill Clinton with the Presidential Medal of Distinction, Wednesday, June 19, 2013 (Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)

Earlier Thursday, Rivlin, Edelstein, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Isaac Herzog lay wreaths beside Peres’s flag-draped coffin at the plaza.

Afterwards, thousands of mourners began making their way into the grounds to view the coffin and pay tribute to the last of the country’s founding fathers, who will lie in state until 9 p.m.

Peres’s body will be moved to the Mount Herzl cemetery Friday at 8:30 a.m. and the official state ceremony will begin at 9:30. After the eulogies, a procession will head out at 11 to the cemetery’s Great Leaders of the Nation section, where the burial ceremony is scheduled to begin an hour later. Peres will be interred between the late prime ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin.

The Knesset Honor Guard carries the coffin of former president and prime minister Shimon Peres at the Knesset, September 29, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
The Knesset Honor Guard carries the coffin of former president and prime minister Shimon Peres at the Knesset, September 29, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

In addition to Clinton, among those planning to attend the funeral at Mount Herzl are US President Barack Obama, US Secretary of State John Kerry, French President Francois Hollande, German President Joachim Gauck, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, former British prime minister David Cameron and Britain’s Prince Charles.

Ahead of Friday’s ceremony, Queen Elizabeth II joined leaders around the world in eulogizing Peres, releasing a statement Wednesday night saying she was “greatly saddened to learn of the death of Shimon Peres.”

“Her Majesty warmly recalls her meeting with Mr Peres in 2008, and sends her heartfelt condolences to his family and the people of Israel at this sad time,” the statement continued.

AFP and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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