It was a love fest at Shimon Peres’s 90th birthday party Tuesday night, as world leaders, beloved performers and regular folk spoke, sang, and sent their messages of love and affection for the president, former prime minister, and Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Peres sat flanked by former US president Bill Clinton and Jewish stage diva Barbra Streisand on his right, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, on his left. Behind them was an auditorium full of who’s who in Israel and abroad, from actors Robert De Niro and Sharon Stone, Prince Albert of Monaco and Chicago mayor and former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel to IDF chief Benny Gantz, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, former prime minister Ehud Barak, Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon and former defense minister Shaul Mofaz.
Former UK prime minister Tony Blair opened the festive evening at Jerusalem’s International Convention Center, commenting that he admires Peres as a leader and loves him as a friend.
“We have a queen, you have Shimon,” said Blair, referring to Peres’s “abiding love for the State of Israel,” as well as him being a “man of passion and compassion.”
“He’s also the best purveyor of a soundbite in politics, and I say that in front of Bill Clinton,” quipped Blair.
From there on in, it was a cornucopia of entertainment and nostalgia, reflecting on Peres’s many contributions to the state, his decades of service and his own personal history, as he escaped Poland and the Holocaust and made it to then-Palestine, already serving in a public role by his mid-20s.
The president was greeted by his family, including his young granddaughter, Eden, who brought him a flower; dozens of young singers and a cluster of violinists; a young Arab boy who successfully survived a heart transplant as a baby, and a series of recorded messages from world leaders (US President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir Putin, former Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev, Elie Wiesel, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and even U2 singer and activist, Bono, who said Peres is “a gift to Israel and to the world.”
Then there were the entertainers. Singer Eyal Golan serenaded Peres with his version of “Dreams,” the Ruhama Raz hit, as well as Naomi Shemer’s “Jerusalem of Gold.” Comedian Adi Ashkenazi joked about only being interested in impressing De Niro, but then launched into a monologue about Peres’s age, the 91-candle budget for the party, and how the president can possibly keep looking this good.
Singer Shlomo Artzi charmed the crowd as always, first emerging in jeans and a jacket, which he promptly removed before singing, and, at the end, hugging the president tightly at his front row seat.
Netanyahu, who first spoke in English, but switched to Hebrew, referred to the first time the two leaders met, at the funeral of Yoni Netanyahu, the prime minister’s brother who was killed in the July 1976 raid on Entebbe.
The prime minister talked about Peres’s longing for peace, commenting that when the president was a young boy, “we had no peace and we had no life,” referring to the period of the Holocaust. “Peace favors the strong,” continued the prime minister. “No one will make peace with the weak.”
Bill Clinton may have received the most applause, after being introduced with a trio of saxophonists. He spoke of his great love for Peres, their friendship after having buried people they love, watching him “in sunshine and storm,” he said. The country stays great, said Clinton, “when people who disagree know they love the same things.”
Or as Channel 2 anchor Yonit Levy commented, “the Peres celebration has proved that if you live long enough, even the people who disagree with you will like you.”
And finally, Barbra Streisand came on stage, garbling the first words of “Ma Nishtana,” from the Passover seder, “the only words I remember from my yeshiva days,” she said. But Streisand, gowned in black, then launched into the song she said “Shimon loves,” a version of “Avinu Malkeinu,” from the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, followed by the ever-popular “People,” much to the appreciation of the crowd.
Peres spoke last, as befitting the birthday celebrant, commenting that it was worth waiting 90 years to hear Streisand’s voice. He spoke of his years of leadership, the support of his family, friends and fellow politicians, and as always, prayed for peace and for the future “before us.”