Former president Shimon Peres, the last of Israel’s founding fathers, was laid to rest Friday morning at Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem with military honors, at a ceremony attended by US President Barack Obama, Britain’s Prince Charles, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and leaders from around the world.
As dignitaries from Israel and abroad filed into the cemetery before the arrival of Peres’s coffin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shook hands and spoke briefly with Abbas, their first meeting in several years.
Obama, who landed an hour before the ceremony began, stood beside the prime minister as the Knesset honor guard bore the coffin past the assembled crowd.
Peres died early Wednesday after a severe stroke two weeks earlier at the age of 93. His passing sparked an outpouring of condolences and expressions of admiration from around the world, with heads of state, religious leaders and even a handful of senior Arab officials praising his six-decade career as a nation builder, defense planner, politician and, at the end, peacemaker who came to embody for many the optimistic outlook of an innovative and confident Israel.
President Reuven Rivlin delivered the first eulogy for his predecessor, who served in nearly all of the country’s top offices during his decades of public service.
“Your stubborn faith in mankind and the good of people — in the victory of progress over ignorance, in the victory of hope over fear — was your eternal fountain of youth, thanks to which you were the eternal fountain of youth for all of us,” Rivlin said. He asked forgiveness for his opponents who crossed “red lines… between ideological disputes and words and deeds which had no place.”
Netanyahu, who was seated alongside Obama during the ceremony, spoke next, praising “the special connection between us that never broke,” despite political disagreements and rivalries.
“Shimon lived a life of purpose,” Netanyahu said in his eulogy. “He soared to incredible heights. He was a great man of Israel; he was a great man of the world. Israel grieves for him, the world grieves for him, but we find hope in his legacy, as does the world.”
He closed saying he loved his former political adversary, “we all loved you.”
Obama said he was honored to be in Jerusalem to pay his respects to his friend Peres. He said Palestinian leader Abbas’s presence at Peres’s funeral was a reminder of the “unfinished business of peace.”
Peres “showed us that justice and hope are at the heart of the Zionist idea,” the president said. “A free life in a homeland regained. A secure life in a nation that can defend itself, by itself. A full life in friendship with nations that can be counted on as allies, always.”
“This was Shimon Peres’s life. This is the State of Israel. This is the story of the Jewish people during the last century.”
Obama, riffing off former US president Bill Clinton’s homage to late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, said in Hebrew “Toda raba, chaver yakar” — many thanks, dear friend.
Many retired leaders, including Clinton, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy and former British prime ministers Tony Blair and David Cameron came to Jerusalem for the funeral, as did cabinet ministers from China and India, Brazil and the Vatican. Despite political opposition at home, the deputy prime minister of Jordan and the foreign minister of Egypt will also pay their respects at the funeral.
Clinton, a longtime friend of Peres since his term in the White House during the height of the Oslo peace process in the 1990s, drew on John Lennon’s seminal song of peace “Imagine” to memorialize the former president, saying that “Shimon could imagine all the people living in the world in peace.”
“In his honor I ask that we remember his luminous smile and imagine,” Clinton said.
The funeral got underway Friday morning with intense security, and “unprecedented” precautions were put in place to secure so many dignitaries and heads of state.
The main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, Route 1, was hermetically sealed to all traffic in both directions from 7:30 a.m. until 9 a.m., then again from 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m., the times when many world leaders, including Obama, were traveling between Ben Gurion Airport and the capital.
Within Jerusalem, too, roads around the Knesset are closed to non-official traffic, and all avenues leading to and from Mount Herzl, on the city’s western edge, will be closed from 6:30 a.m. until at least 2 p.m. The city’s light rail will operate on a shortened route that will avoid the closed-off parts of the city.
Peres was to be laid to rest in the Leaders of the Nation section on Mt. Herzl. It is also the burial site of four former prime ministers: Yitzhak Rabin, Yitzhak Shamir, Golda Meir and Levi Eshkol.