MOUNT HERZL, Jerusalem — The funeral of Shimon Peres would have made him proud, and deservedly so. The pomp of a state funeral was only heightened by the scores of international figures who made, in many cases, a lengthy plane journey to honor him. The VIP audience was a global leadership who’s who, a testament to Peres’s long years of public service. Prince Charles rubbed shoulders with Francois Hollande; Tony Blair chatted to Justin Trudeau; and practically everyone shook Mahmoud Abbas’s hand.
Aside from the Israeli leadership, the speakers included not one but two US presidents, who both delivered emotional, personal tributes to this “older, wiser man,” as Barack Obama called Peres in his address. The decade and a half between the start of his and Bill Clinton’s respective terms of office was another reminder of the enduring presence of Shimon Peres in the annals of the State of Israel. Obama counted himself the tenth US president with whom Peres had interacted, the tenth, Obama said, to “fall prey to his charms.”
Clinton had been here before, eulogizing another of Israel’s founding fathers at a funeral on Mount Herzl. While Yitzhak Rabin’s life was taken at a peace rally, there was comfort this time in that Peres passed away at the grand age of 93. It was Obama who this time uttered the Hebrew words, his “toda raba, haver yakar” (thank you, dear friend) echoing Clinton’s 1995 “shalom haver” (goodbye, friend) farewell to Rabin, a salutation that resonated so greatly with a shell-shocked nation that it can be seen on Israeli bumper stickers to this day.
But on Friday, too, there were plenty of tears. President Reuven Rivlin seemed to barely make it through his eulogy without breaking down. His voice cracked on more than one occasion, straining particularly as he called his predecessor the heart of Israel, “a heart that loved the people, the land, and the state.” He was not alone. A pan across the VIP section by the cameras broadcasting onto screens at the ceremony showed the prime minister’s wife Sara Netanyahu wiping away tears.
Her husband also had red-rimmed eyes; Benjamin Netanyahu’s own tribute, which began with a series of smooth flips back and forth between Hebrew and English, resonated with the internalization that Shimon Peres, the last of Israel’s founding fathers, is gone. “I loved you. We all love you,” said the often bitter rival of the deceased. We are alone now, alone with our mistakes, ran the subtext to the prime minister’s strikingly moving speech, with no elder’s guiding hand to offer advice or admonishment.
The revelation that Peres and the Netanyahus, miles apart politically, regularly dined together could partly explain the desolate expression on the face of a prime minister notorious for his lack of trust in his colleagues.
Not that the ceremony was apolitical, as befitting a man who reveled in political life. Netanyahu gave Abbas a warm welcome before the ceremony after years of silence, while Sara issued him a somewhat startling dinner invitation at their home. And if Netanyahu chose not to mention Abbas in his speech, the Palestinian leader’s prominent presence elicited public praise and a warning from Obama, who hailed it as “a gesture and a reminder of the unfinished business of peace.”
The president ending his term in office was more blatant than the prime minister who is one year into his current government, but the latter too inserted some political commentary, stressing the imperative for unity despite differences and disagreements between the left and the right.
“The many gaps between these two camps have narrowed on many issues,” Netanyahu approvingly quoted Peres as saying. It was a message that, if cynicism were put aside, one might think could well herald another stab at a unity government, at bringing the Zionist Union faction, of which the Labor Party is the senior party, into what is an unapologetically right-wing coalition. And as Obama said, “Shimon Peres reminds us that the State of Israel, like the United States of America, was not built by cynics.”
Equally moving was the burial itself, watched only via screens as it was closed to everyone save the family and honored guests. Peres’s three adult children – who had each delivered moving, personal, loving eulogies – came together to recite Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer (with a modern twist, thanks to Peres’s daughter Tsvia). Their voices rang out across a largely deserted plaza, where moments earlier their father’s flag-draped coffin had rested before the hundreds of mourners. The public event over, the area soon emptied, and only a handful remained to watch as the ninth president went to his final resting place, laid for eternity between prime ministers Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir.
The ceremony was a masterpiece of last-minute logistics and planning, not to mention affection and goodwill from those who made the trip. It was one of the largest mass gatherings of dignitaries outside the UN, and certainly the largest in Israel’s history. In death, Peres received the ultimate accolade as the great and the good flocked to his side one last time, to say goodbye to a giant of a man in a way that caught the attention of the entire world. The farewell was unforgettable, much like the man himself.