World leaders from US President Barack Obama to Britain’s Prince Charles gathered under tight security in Israel on Friday for the funeral of ex-prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres.
Security forces were on high alert for the funeral beginning at 9:00 am (0600 GMT) at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl national cemetery, with roads closed and thousands of officers deployed.
Some 70 countries were to be represented, with the range of leaders illustrating the respect Peres gained over the years in his transformation from hawk to committed peace advocate. His death on Wednesday at the age of 93 drew tributes from around the world for Israel’s last remaining founding father.
An estimated 50,000 people filed past his coffin as it lay in state outside parliament in Jerusalem throughout the day on Thursday. Former US president Bill Clinton was among those who paid their last respects there, appearing moved as he stood in silence before the coffin.
Clinton had helped usher in the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians in the 1990s, which resulted in the Nobel prize for Peres. After Peres’s death, he called him “a genius with a big heart”. Obama arrived on Friday morning and plans to depart after the ceremony.
He and Clinton were scheduled to speak, along with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and parliament speaker Yuli Edelstein. Others to speak include renowned writer Amos Oz as well as Peres’s two sons and daughter.
In a rare visit to Jerusalem, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, who signed the Oslo accords and negotiated with Peres, will also attend the funeral. Around 8,000 police were being deployed for the commemorations.
“We are dealing with an operation on an unprecedented scale,” said police chief Roni Alsheikh. The last time such an event was held in Israel was the 1995 funeral for Yitzhak Rabin, Peres’s rival in the Labour party but partner in negotiating the Oslo accords.
Peres will be buried next to Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995 by a Jewish extremist opposed to the accords. In a career spanning seven decades, Peres held nearly every major office, serving twice as prime minister and as president, a mainly ceremonial role, from 2007 to 2014.
He won the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for his role in negotiating the Oslo accords, which envisioned an independent Palestinian state. He was also an architect of Israel’s nuclear programme, with the country now considered the Middle East’s sole nuclear-armed nation, though it has never declared it.
While Peres is hailed in the West as a peacemaker, many in the Arab world, including among the Palestinians, regard him a “war criminal”. They have cited his involvement in successive Arab-Israeli wars, the occupation of Palestinian territory and his support for settlement building before his work on Oslo.
He was also prime minister in 1996 when more than 100 civilians were killed while sheltering at a UN peacekeepers’ base in the Lebanese village of Qana fired upon by Israel. Islamist movement Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip, condemned Abbas for offering condolences to Peres’s family, saying it “disregards the blood of the martyrs and the suffering of the Palestinian people”.
Abbas however called Peres a “brave” partner for peace. There have been very few tributes from Arab nations, though Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry is due to attend the funeral.
Egypt and Jordan are the only two Arab countries with peace treaties with Israel. Born in Poland in 1923, Peres emigrated to what was then British-mandated Palestine when he was 11.
He joined the Zionist struggle and met David Ben-Gurion, who would become his mentor and Israel’s first prime minister. Peres became director general of the nascent defence ministry at just 29.
After leaving office as president, he had sought to maintain an active schedule, particularly through his Peres Center for Peace. He was hospitalised in January for heart trouble, but said he was eager to return to work upon leaving.
In March, he met British supermodel Naomi Campbell at his Peres Center for Peace during an event linked to International Women’s Day. On the same day, he met visiting US Vice President Joe Biden. He had given a speech on September 13, the day he suffered a stroke. He never recovered and died two weeks later.
Despite his reputation as a statesman, Peres never managed to outright win a national election. Many in Israel opposed to the Oslo accords also blamed him for what they saw as their failure. But in later life, especially during his time as president, he came to be widely embraced.