Nearly a full day after the death of former president Shimon Peres, with numerous world leaders led by President Barack Obama preparing to attend his funeral, no Arab rulers had indicated that they would attend.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas expressed his condolences at Peres’s death. So too, reportedly, did Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, and there were reports late Wednesday that Cairo would send its foreign minister to the funeral Friday. But Jordan’s King Abdullah had yet to comment on the former Israeli president’s death, and there was silence, too, from other Arab capitals, in an echo of the “old” Middle East peace that Peres sought so fervently to change.
Arad Nir, the foreign affairs commentator for Channel 2 TV, said it would be “very sad” if the people who Peres negotiated with did not attend the funeral. “It puts a question mark on Shimon Peres’s vision, his life’s mission: Peace,” he said.
The PA’s official news agency Wafa reported Wednesday afternoon that Abbas had sent a condolence letter to Peres’s family.
Abbas expressed his “sadness and sorrow,” and wrote that “Peres was a partner in making the brave peace with the martyr Yasser Arafat and prime minister (Yitzhak) Rabin.” He added that Peres “made unremitting efforts to reach a lasting peace from the Oslo agreement until the final moments of his life.”
But no word was offered from Abbas’s office as to his participation in Peres’s Friday funeral, and several senior Palestinian officials reached by Israeli journalists avoided the question, hung up the phone, or explained that they did not know if he was due to attend.
This ambiguity came despite several conversations between Israeli and Palestinian officials, The Times of Israel has learned, in which the Israelis suggested that the attendance by a PA representative, and especially its president, could have a positive effect on Israeli public opinion.
In a statement from Cairo, reported and translated late on Wednesday by Egypt expert Ruth Wasserman, Sissi expressed “deep sorrow and grief” at the death of Peres on behalf of himself, his government, and his advisers, sending “our sincerest condolences.” He also praised Peres as “a dove of peace in the region.”
Egyptian media reported late Wednesday that Sissi would send his foreign minister Sameh Shoukry to represent Egypt at the funeral, and that Sissi had yet to decide whether he would attend. There was no immediate official confirmation of Shoukry’s attendance.
While Abbas and Sissi did express condolences at the passing of a man who spent half a lifetime pursuing peace with the Palestinians, there was official silence from every other Arab capital, including Israel’s other peace partner Jordan.
Like Abbas and Sissi, Jordan’s Abdullah knew Peres well and had met him more than once. Earlier this week, Abdullah allowed his government to sign a historic $10-billion deal to import natural gas from Israel. But the Jordanian king may have been cowed into silence by fears of a backlash, in part because of the way Peres’s passing was reported in Arab media.
Arab media including al-Jazeera presented Peres on Wednesday as responsible for the April 1996 Qana attack, when Israel Defense Forces’ artillery fire on a UN compound in the southern Lebanese village killed 106 civilians. The incident, which took place amid heavy fighting between Israel and Hezbollah in the area, also enjoyed pride of place in Hamas media coverage of Peres’s passing, and may have shaped the way Peres’s death was framed throughout the Arab world in the hours following his death.
Iran’s state television on Wednesday called him “the butcher of Qana.”
“He will stand in front of God and defend himself for his heinous crimes against humanity,” said Hamad al-Qahtani, a Kuwaiti government employee. “He killed refugees, orphaned children and destroyed families. May he get what he deserves.”
“He often presented himself as a man of peace, but no one in the Arab world really believed him,” said Abdullah el-Sennawy, a prominent Egyptian columnist. “Whenever there was war, he was there.”
“Peres was a significant contributor to the historic injustice that occurred to the Palestinian people,” Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian government spokesman in the West Bank, wrote on his Facebook page, in comments relating to the establishment of Israel in 1948, considered by Palestinians as a “naqba,” or catastrophe.
As a Defense Ministry official during the 1950s, Peres helped turn Israel into a regional military power and played a central role in secretly developing what is widely believed to be a sizable nuclear arsenal. And after Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war, Peres was an early defender of efforts to build Jewish settlements in the captured territory, the biblical Judea and Samaria — a position he would later change. In his later years, indeed, Peres became a staunch advocate of territorial compromise with the Palestinians, and prominent supporter of Abbas as a peace partner for Israel.
In Gaza on Wednesday, Hamas expressed joy over Peres’s death, and in Iran, local media reported that students distributed candies at Imam Sadegh University to celebrate.
“Shimon Peres was an example of how the world can forget someone’s crimes if they only live long enough,” Sultan Saoud al-Qassemi, a popular commentator in the United Arab Emirates, wrote on his Twitter feed.
Not all the reaction in the Arab world was negative.
In Iraq, Iyad Jamal al-Din, a Shiite cleric and former politician, praised Peres as a “wise leader who helped his people.”
“What have Arab leaders done for their people? Peres turned Israel from a militia to a state. Today, the last wise man of the Israelis has passed,” he said.
Iranian political analyst Hassan Hanizadeh said Peres had been a moderating force in the region and helped prevent conflict. Netanyahu and other hard-liners will now have “a more free hand in implementing their hard-line policies in the region and world,” he said.
Associated Press contributed to this report.