While eulogizing Peres, key leaders eschew chance to push two states

When Ariel Sharon — the hawk turned dove — died in 2014, many dignitaries explicitly urged Netanyahu to follow in his policy path. Fewer are doing so this time

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Ariel Sharon, left, with Shimon Peres in the Knesset in 2005. (photo credit: Sharon Perry/Flash90)
Ariel Sharon, left, with Shimon Peres in the Knesset in 2005. (photo credit: Sharon Perry/Flash90)

In their tributes to Israel’s late president Shimon Peres on Wednesday, innumerable world leaders praised his tireless fight for peace. Some also used the occasion to call on the country’s current leadership to advance a two-state solution, but several others, including perennial critics of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, tellingly eschewed the opportunity to connect condolences with appeals for the future.

Just as most Israeli hawks in their eulogies avoided mentioning some of the fundamental policy disagreements they had with the dovish Peres, a number of key international dignitaries — including people who usually jump at every chance to exhort the Israeli government to take bold steps toward peace — decided not to link Peres’s death with such calls.

This is noteworthy especially in light of the many condolence messages issued by world leaders after the death of former prime minister Ariel Sharon in early 2014. Like Peres, Sharon was considered a hawk in his earlier years (though the latter was a member of the center-right Likud party while Peres was practically a lifelong Laborite) who later prioritized the need to make peace and took concrete steps to achieve that goal.

Many messages of condolences issued by world leaders after Sharon’s death read like not-so-subtle pleas to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps and undergo a similar transformation from a hawk to a dove.

When Sharon passed away, after having been comatose for eight years, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, for instance, focused his statement on the one action that the world appears to want to remember about him: the “painful and historic decision to withdraw Israeli settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip.”

President Shimon Peres, after laying a wreath for Ariel Sharon, left flowers on Lily Sharon's grave (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/ GPO/ Flash 90)
President Shimon Peres, after laying a wreath for Ariel Sharon, left flowers on Lily Sharon’s grave (Kobi Gideon/ GPO/ Flash 90)

Sharon’s successor, Ban’s statement continued, without naming any names, now “faces the difficult challenge of realizing the aspirations of peace between the Israeli and Palestinian people. The Secretary-General calls on Israel to build on the late Prime Minister’s legacy of pragmatism to work towards the long overdue achievement of an independent and viable Palestinian state, next to a secure Israel.”

Ban’s Wednesday statement lauding Peres, by contrast, contains no such message. It merely expresses the general wish that Peres’s “spirit of determination guide us as we work to ensure peace, security and dignity for Israelis, Palestinians and all the peoples of the region.”

US President Barack Obama, in his statement on Sharon, said Washington will continue “to strive for lasting peace and security for the people of Israel, including through our commitment to the goal of two states living side-by-side in peace and security.”

On Wednesday morning, after Peres died, by contrast, Obama made no mention of the two-state solution, saying less specifically that there is no greater tribute to Peres’s life “than to renew our commitment to the peace that we know is possible.”

In 2014, German Chancellor Angela Merkel applauded Sharon’s “courageous decision” to withdraw settlers from the Gaza Strip, during the Disengagement, a “historic step on the path to a deal with the Palestinians and a two-state solution.”

In 2016, eulogizing Peres, she noted that he was unable to see his dream of peace in the Middle East come true. “To continue working toward his goal,” she said decidedly more vaguely, “that’s his legacy and our obligation.”

The change of tone and emphasis may be coincidental. The shift could also stem from the fact that Peres had not been prime minister for 20 years, and so was not the address for specific policy actions. But it could also reflect an awareness of how relatively remote the prospects for dramatic negotiating progress appear right now.

Still, some officials did use Peres’s passing to urge Netanyahu, quite explicitly, to do more in the pursuit of peace.

The European Union’s foreign policy czar, Federica Mogherini, for instance, stated that the way to honor the late peacemaker’s legacy is with “a daily commitment to reconciliation, preserving and advancing his vision for a two-state solution.​”

Pope Francis, in a telegram sent to President Reuven Rivlin, expressed the hope that Peres’s legacy “will inspire us all to work with ever greater urgency for peace and reconciliation between peoples. In this way, his legacy will truly be honoured and the common good for which he so diligently laboured will find new expressions, as humanity strives to advance on the path towards enduring peace.”

Pope Francis embraces former Israeli president Shimon Peres on September 4, 2014 prior to a private audience at the Vatican. (photo credit: AFP/Osservatore Romano)
Pope Francis embraces former Israeli president Shimon Peres on September 4, 2014 prior to a private audience at the Vatican. (photo credit: AFP/Osservatore Romano)

The government of South Africa, which is notoriously critical of the current Israeli government, said Wednesday that Peres “will be fondly remembered for his unwavering commitment to the two-state solution with Palestine, which unfortunately is still to be achieved.”

The statement, issued by Pretoria’s Foreign Ministry, hailed the late president as the rare politician who “allowed reason to transform his thinking on the question of Palestinian Statehood.”

The statement closes with a call for both Israelis and Palestinians “to return to genuine negotiations in order to accomplish and realise the vision that Presidents Arafat, Rabin, and Peres started in Oslo more than twenty years ago. This will be a fitting tribute to the life and memory of President Peres.”

If Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Jordanian King Abdullah and perhaps even Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas end up attending Peres’s funeral on Friday — there are rumors to that effect at time of writing, though no official confirmation — perhaps Obama will seize the opportunity and get them into a room with Netanyahu in a bid to revitalize the moribund peace process. Shimon Peres would have certainly approved.

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