The event was solemn and sorrowful, but the optics, and the content, were inspiring. Standing before a line of bright Israeli national flags fluttering in the late morning breeze, President Barack Obama, a skullcap on his head, delivered a speech of admiration not only for Shimon Peres, the former Israeli president and prime minister, but also for the Jewish people and the Jewish state as emblemized and, briefly, led by Peres.
The final speaker at Shimon Peres’s funeral Friday on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl, Obama detailed Peres’s personal story of hope and achievement after tragedy, and said it symbolized the story of the Jewish people this past century — the longing for the homeland, the devastation of the Holocaust, the revival of the Jewish state. In Peres’s case, noted Obama somberly, “The railroad tracks that had carried him toward the Promised Land also delivered so many of his people to death camps.”
“I could not be more honored to be in Jerusalem to say farewell to my friend Shimon Peres, who showed us that justice and hope are at the heart of the Zionist idea,” Obama said near the start of his address, rescuing the very word “Zionism” from the lexicon of Israel’s demonizers and denigrators. The Zionist ethos, Obama continued, seeks, “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 who can be counted on as allies, always. A bountiful life, driven by simple pleasures of family and by big dreams.
“This was Shimon Peres’s life,” declared the president, speaking before the greatest gathering here of world leaders since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin 21 years ago. “This is the State of Israel. This is the story of the Jewish people over the last century.”
“Shimon’s story, the story of Israel, the experience of the Jewish people,” Obama said soon after, is “the story of a people who, over so many centuries in the wilderness, never gave up on that basic human longing to return home. It’s the story of a people who suffered the boot of oppression and the shutting of the gas chamber’s door, and yet never gave up on a belief in goodness.”
These sentences, like many others in Obama’s address, were laden with empathy, understanding and solidarity for Israel and its people. They were the words of a friend — a friend in the highest of places.
Listening to Obama speak, it was clear why he had regarded it as essential to travel here for the funeral, even for the briefest of hours. Where Bill Clinton, who also honored Peres with his presence, had built a unique relationship with Rabin, the security chief who turned peacemaker, Obama plainly feels he shared a vision with Peres, the optimist, the dreamer, the man of hope.
The US president’s speech veered carefully into the political. Some of his first words were directed to the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — who had been tellingly placed by the Israeli arrangers in the front row of mourners but off-center — “whose presence here,” said Obama, “is a gesture and a reminder of the unfinished business of peace.”
And throughout his eulogy, he invoked Peres to champion his conviction that Israel’s future ultimately depends on its capacity to achieve peace with its neighbors, and first and foremost the Palestinians. “I don’t believe he was naïve,” Obama said, speaking of Peres though doubtless thinking a little of himself and of the way he is perceived, certainly by more hawkish Israelis. “But he understood from hard-earned experience that true security comes through making peace with your neighbors.”
He continued: “Shimon believed that Israel’s exceptionalism was rooted not only in fidelity to the Jewish people, but to the moral and ethical vision, the precepts of his Jewish faith. ‘The Jewish people weren’t born to rule another people,’ he would say. ‘From the very first day we are against slaves and masters.'” Again, these were convictions of Peres’s that evidently echo resonantly for Obama.
Obama tried hard during his presidency to broker an Israeli-Palestinian accord. His tense relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stemmed in part from his belief that Netanyahu, by expanding settlements, has been pushing the prospect of peace further away.
But the very constellation of attendees at Peres’s funeral underlined the complexities of peacemaking in this bloody, unpredictable Middle Eastern era. Abbas, apparently after long hesitation, did decide to come to the ceremony, and Netanyahu thanked him for it. But Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sissi did not. These are the rulers of countries formally at peace with Israel, who share fundamental interests with Israel, and who personally knew Peres. But apparently, given the hostility to the very fact of Israel’s existence among much of their peoples, the short journey to Jerusalem was unnecessarily risky, a trip too far.
Even more dismally, the entire Joint (Arab) List, the 13-member Knesset party representing Israel’s Arab minority, boycotted the ceremony; its members stayed away from the funeral of Israel’s greatest champion of peacemaking, declaring themselves unable to forget some of his earlier actions and positions.
Peres intimately understood the difficulties of making peace in such an environment. Obama, in his address, hailed the former president for pressing on nonetheless: “Even in the face of terrorist attacks, even after repeated disappointments at the negotiation table, (Peres) insisted that as human beings, Palestinians must be seen as equal in dignity to Jews, and must therefore be equal in self-determination. Because of his sense of justice, his analysis of Israel’s security, his understanding of Israel’s meaning, he believed that the Zionist idea would be best protected when Palestinians, too, had a state of their own.”
This is the worldview that Obama, in his presidency, attempted to convey to the Israeli public. As Peres knew full well, that’s an arduous task at the best of times, and harder still in a tempestuous period like this one.
But at Peres’s funeral on Friday, Obama enveloped his convictions in a protective cloak of profound empathy for Israel’s challenges and support for its future.
In 2009, early in his presidency, Obama made a trip to Cairo, to reach out to the Muslim world. Leaving Israel off his itinerary back then was the cardinal psychological error of his presidency when it comes to peacemaking, a crucial opportunity missed to personally convey to Israelis that America is with us, that America has our back.
Had he added a stop here seven years ago, one can only wonder, and set out his vision for Israel, his appreciation of Israel, and his commitment to Israel, in front of a line of Israeli flags in the warm glow of Jerusalem, might his effort to foster wider Israeli support for the worldview he shared with Shimon Peres have met with a little more success?