US President Barack Obama lifted off from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on Thursday en route to Israel to attend the state funeral Friday of former Israeli president Shimon Peres.
He stands at the head of a large delegation of American senators, representatives, top administration officials and diplomats. In total, 33 American dignitaries will be in Jerusalem to pay their final respects to Israel’s elder statesman, who died early Wednesday at the age of 93, some two weeks after suffering a massive stroke.
Obama is scheduled to arrive in Israel on Friday morning local time, shortly before the funeral, will deliver the final eulogy at the ceremony in Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl cemetery, and will leave immediately after the funeral, the White House said in a statement.
Obama and Peres enjoyed a close relationship, and the US president referred to his “friend Shimon” in his official statement of condolence on Wednesday.
“There are few people who we share this world with who change the course of human history, not just through their role in human events, but because they expand our moral imagination and force us to expect more of ourselves. My friend Shimon was one of those people,” Obama said.
Former president Bill Clinton landed in Israel on Thursday morning and went straight from his plane to the Knesset to pay his respects to the man many consider the last of Israel’s “founding fathers,” whose body is lying in state outside the parliament building.
Clinton was later hosted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his official residence in Jerusalem.
Joining Obama at the funeral are Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice, as well as House Democratic Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi.
In all, 18 members of Congress are flying to Israel to pay their respects to Peres, as well as current and former top administration officials such as key Mideast adviser Robert Malley, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes and former peace envoy Martin Indyk.
The US delegation is part of the largest gathering of world leaders in Israel since the funeral in 1995 of assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, with delegations coming from more than 70 countries.
Many of these delegations are headed by their heads of state, a tribute to Peres’s stature abroad as a respected elder statesman. Among the leaders arriving for the funeral are French President Francois Hollande, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, German President Joachim Gauck, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Australia’s Governor General Peter Cosgrove, former British premiers Tony Blair and David Cameron, as well as the UK’s Prince Charles and its Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced Thursday he would be heading a delegation of top officials from Ramallah. Egypt is also sending its foreign minister and Jordan a deputy prime minister, a sign of Peres’s complicated standing in the Arab world, where he is both praised for his peace efforts but pilloried for his initial support of West Bank settlements and held accountable for military operations during his time as defense minister and prime minister .
Peres’s body will be moved to the Mount Herzl cemetery Friday at 8:30 a.m. and the official state ceremony will begin at 9:30. After the eulogies, a procession will head out at 11 to the cemetery’s Leaders of the Nation section, where the burial ceremony is scheduled to begin an hour later. Peres will be interred between the late prime ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin.