US President Barack Obama paid tribute to former president Shimon Peres at the state funeral in Jerusalem on Friday, calling him one of “the giants of the 20th century” who will be remembered for his efforts to make peace with the Palestinians.
The Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s efforts to achieve peace with the Palestinians was the focus of the president’s homage to the last founding father of the state of Israel who died earlier this week.
During the funeral, the US president sat in the front row, flanked by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Chemi Peres, the son of the late statesman.
Peres saw the need for Palestinian statehood, Obama said, paraphrasing him saying that “the Jewish people were not born to rule another people.”
“He believed the Zionist idea would be best protected when Palestinians too had a state of their own,” he said.
The US president, who arrived an hour before the funeral from Washington with a 33-person-strong delegation, said Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s presence at Peres’s funeral was “a gesture and a reminder of the unfinished business of peace.” Drawing a parallel to the biblical figure of Moses, Peres “never saw his dream of peace fulfilled.”
“The region is going through a chaotic time. Threats are ever-present. And yet, he did not stop dreaming and he did not stop working,” Obama said.
Rebuffing critics who called Peres’s optimistic drive for peace “naive,” Obama said he didn’t think Peres was naïve, “but he understood from hard-earned experience, that true security comes through making peace with your neighbors.”
Now the work of peace-making is in the hands of Israel’s next generation and its friends, Obama said.
Obama said he was the tenth US president — starting with John F. Kennedy — to “fall prey to [Peres’s] charms.” Peres reminded him of “some other giants of the 20th century that I’ve had the honor to meet” — such as Nelson Mandela — “leaders who have seen so much… People who speak in depth and knowledge, not in soundbites.”
The US president added that Peres was a reminder that Israel, like US, “was not built by cynics,” and “Shimon Peres was never cynical.”
“He knew better than the cynic that if you look out over the arc of history, human beings should be filled not with fear, but with hope,” Obama impressed.
Peres “believed in miracles, because in Israel, he saw miracles come true.” And his contributions to Israel, Obama said, are “so fundamental, so pervasive, that perhaps sometimes it could be overlooked.”
Both the United States and Israel have flaws in their histories which they are reluctant to address, Obama said, but because democracy was embedded from the start, “we have the capacity to do what’s right.”
On a personal note, the US president said he “took great pleasure in my friendship with this older, wiser man.”
“I could somehow see myself in his stories. Maybe he could see himself in mine because for all of our differences, both of us had lived such unlikely lives.”
Obama said he shared “a love of words and books and history” with Peres. “And perhaps like most politicians, we shared too great a joy in hearing ourselves talk.”
“Shimon, toda raba, haver yakar,” he closed in Hebrew, riffing former US president Bill Clinton’s tribute to former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 — “Shimon, thank you, dear friend.”