Jerusalem, Undefined | AFP |
The gathering of world leaders for Friday’s funeral of Israel’s ex-president Shimon Peres featured a rare show of Israel-Palestinian detente, US President Barack Obama’s attempt at Hebrew and just a touch of humour.
On arrival at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl national cemetery, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, who knew Peres well and had negotiated with him, shook hands with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu before exchanging pleasantries with him and his wife, Sara.
The last substantial public meeting between Abbas and Netanyahu was in 2010, though there have been unconfirmed reports of secret meetings since then.
The rare gesture sparked debate among Palestinians.
Under heavy security, with roads closed and thousands of officers deployed, dozens of world leaders descended on Mount Herzl accompanied by a small army of officials, aides and bodyguards.
Before proceedings began, the master of ceremonies felt compelled to remind the distinguished gathering as they greeted each other that they were at a funeral.
Britain’s Prince Charles was present, though not in an official capacity, and no Arab leader save from Abbas attended.
Netanyahu acknowledged that he and his “political adversary” Peres had not always seen eye to eye but the prime minister was soon overcome with emotion.
His brother Yoni was killed 40 years ago during an operation to free Israeli hostages in Uganda. Yoni was buried at Mount Herzl by then defence minister, Shimon Peres.
Bill Clinton too
The former US president, a black kippa cap atop his white hair, welled up as he fondly remembered Israel’s elder statesman.
“He started off life as Israel’s brightest student, became its best teacher, and ended up its biggest dreamer,” he said.
Two decades ago, Clinton’s memorable eulogy at the funeral of assassinated Israeli premier Yitzhak Rabin — who along with Peres won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the Oslo Accords — ended with the words “Shalom Haver” (“Goodbye, my friend”).
Peres’s favourite prayer, “Avinu Malkeinu”, was performed by Israeli artist David d’Or.
Chemi, one of Peres’s two sons, broke down within the first few bars, hiding tears with hands pressed to his face.
A touch of laughter
His other son, Yoni, used his comments to poke gentle fun at his father’s advanced age, saying the 93-year-old former president was “too young to die”.
Peres’s daughter Tsvia recalled her father’s favourite dish, a tomato and cucumber salad prepared by his wife Sonia, who died in 2011.
Obama tries his Hebrew
“Toda Raba Haver Yakar,” US President Barack Obama said during his turn at the lecturn — “Thank you, my dear friend.”
Also wearing the traditional Jewish kippa, Obama invoked a parallel between his path and that of Peres, who was born in a tiny Jewish “shtetl” in rural Poland.
“I think our friendship was rooted in the fact that I could somehow see myself in his story, and maybe he could see himself in mine,” Obama said.
Peace for ‘all people’
The traditional Jewish funeral prayer, the Kaddish, was recited by Peres’s three children by his grave.
It was the voice of Tsvia that rose above the others. At the final blessing, which calls for peace “for the people of Israel”, she added her own universal prayer: “And for all people.”
Moments later, the coffin was lowered into the ground and slowly disappeared beneath piles of earth.