World leaders gather as former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres is laid to rest

Former Israeli President Shimon Peres was laid to rest on Friday beneath the silent pine trees of Israel’s Mount Herzl national cemetery, eulogized by Israeli leaders, family, and two American presidents as a founding father who first built up Israel’s military industrial complex and then sought peace with the Palestinians.

President Obama led the processional at an Israeli state funeral attended by world leaders and dignitaries from dozens of countries — as well as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who honored Peres by crossing the chasm of national divide to mourn in a pantheon of the Zionist history.  

On a cool Jerusalem morning, as a Star of David flag lowered to half-staff flapped in a gentle breeze, Peres’ casket was born by a parliamentary honor guard before a crowd of politicians, former military chiefs, diplomats and cabinet members.  

Peres, who died Wednesday from complications of a stroke earlier this month, was hailed by speakers as the last leader from Israel’s founding generation, a visionary who built up Israel’s military power and eventually became its best-known statesman — a leader who, despite numerous political setbacks, never stopped seeking to advance Israeli-Arab reconciliation.

They paid tribute to the boy from a Jewish town in Poland who immigrated to Palestine before his extended family was killed in the Nazi Holocaust and eventually served at the side of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion — launching a decades-long career in Israel’s slash-and-burn political system in which Peres was reviled by many Israelis as being too willing to compromise.

 “It was no secret that Shimon and I were political enemies, but over the years we became close friends,’’ said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who handed Peres one of his painful defeats by narrowly defeating him in a parliamentary election in 1996.

Standing alongside his casket, Netanyahu recalled debating with Peres into the night after he had left partisan politics to become the country’s president, a mostly ceremonial post.

“Shimon claimed fervently, ‘Bibi, shalom is the true security.’ I argued, ‘Shimon, in the Middle East security is a necessary condition for peace,’” he said. “I came to the conclusion that we were both right. In the stormy Middle East, peace will only be assured with constant demonstration of our power … but power is only a means.”

Obama, who was in the country for only a few hours, sat beside Netanyahu and Peres’ son Nechemia during the ceremony. Wearing a black memorial ribbon and a yarmulke in deference to Jewish custom, the president recalled discussing books and history with Peres in the White House and striking up a chemistry despite their different backgrounds and ages.

“Our friendship was rooted in that I could see myself in his history and maybe he could see himself in mine,’’ Obama said.  

In his eulogy, Obama, who was stymied for eight years in advancing a peace process in the Middle East — in part by skepticism in Israel about the peace talks with the Palestinians and also friction with Netanyahu — gently urged Israelis to continue Peres’ legacy of seeking reconciliation.

“I don’t believe he was naive,’’ Obama said. “ ‘The Jewish people weren’t born to rule over another people,’ [Peres] would say.… He came to believe that the Zionist idea would be best protected when the Palestinians have a state of their own.’’

The presence of Abbas, who sat in a cemetery reserved for Israeli prime ministers and presidents, and opposite the black marble tomb of Theodore Herzl, celebrated by Israelis as the first visionary of a Jewish state, was criticized in the Arab world. “Expressing condolences to Peres’ family and Israel is a crime,’’ said Hamas official Bassem Naim.

The world dignitaries — including Britain’s Prince Charles and French President Francois Hollande — were flanked in the front rows by Peres’ three children and his grandchildren.

The families’ somber faces dissolved into sobbing at a piercing rendition of one of Peres’ beloved liturgies, “Our Father, Our King,” the Jewish prayer for atonement.

His daughter Tzvika Walden pulled back the curtain on home life with the man who was called “Buzhik,” a nickname for doll, by his wife, Sonia, and who used his powers of persuasion in the mundane tasks of parenting.

“To me, he was a young man who used his creative skills to get us to eat. Who cut sandwiches into triangles and diamonds,’’ she said. “ ‘Try this.’”     

Despite being a polarizing political leader, Peres won widespread popularity among Israelis as president and in retirement. The day before his funeral, tens of thousands of Israelis from all sides of the political spectrum filed by his casket on the plaza of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament building, to pay tribute.

“Peres was a special man,’’ said one mother who was tugging along a toddler as they passed by the former prime minister’s casket. Other Israelis paused to snap selfies.

Standing nearby with his wife and three children was Aviv Agoor-Halevy, who recalled the outpouring on the same plaza when former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 after appearing at a peace rally with then-Foreign Minister Peres, leaving Israelis shocked and peace negotiations with the Palestinians teetering.  

“The man died, but his path died long ago,’’ Agoor-Halevy lamented, referring to Peres and the defunct peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

Sighing, his wife, Hagit, said she brought their children to the memorial to witness a part of history -- the closing of a chapter of Israel’s founding generation.

“I said we have to come because something like this will never happen again.”

Mitnick is a special correspondent.


UPDATES:

8:30 a.m.: This article was updated with more details from the funeral service.

This article was originally published at 7:15 a.m.

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