Abbas in Jerusalem

Obama thanked Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for attending the funeral, saying that “President Abbas’s presence here is a reminder of the unfinished business of peace.”

October 1, 2016 22:07
3 minute read.
President Rivlin with PA President Abbas

President Rivlin with PA President Abbas. (photo credit: Mark Neiman/GPO)

Among the eulogies extolling the legacy of Shimon Peres at his state funeral, the president of the United States recalled the link between the murder of Peres’s family in the Holocaust and his pursuit of peace.

“It steeled him against hardship and made him vigilant against threats to Jewry around the world... But that understanding would never harden his heart, it never extinguished his faith,” President Barack Obama said.

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“It made him see that all people were worthy of dignity and respect. It helped him see not just the world as it is, but the world as it should be,” Obama stated. “He understood that true security comes from making peace with your neighbors.”

With that thought in mind, Obama thanked Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for attending the funeral, saying that “President Abbas’s presence here is a reminder of the unfinished business of peace.”

In what many saw as a reference to Palestinian incitement of terrorism, Obama asserted that Peres “understood in this war-torn region, in which Arab youth are often taught to hate from an early age – he knew how hard peace would be.”

But he also quoted Peres as saying, “The Jewish people wasn’t born to rule another people.” Obama noted that, despite terrorist attacks, Palestinians must be seen as a people equal in dignity to Jews and as such deserving self-determination.

And although Peres never saw his dream of peace fulfilled, “he did not stop dreaming and working.”

Obama concluded his speech with an echo of the farewell spoken by former president Bill Clinton – who also spoke on Friday – at the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Both presidents saluted the departed in Hebrew: Clinton with “Shalom haver” (Goodbye, friend) and Obama with “Toda raba, haver yakar” (Thank you very much, dear friend).

While Yasser Arafat did not attend Rabin’s funeral 21 years ago, the presence of Abbas on Friday signaled a curious split among Palestinians and Arab Israelis. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas shook hands and chatted briefly on Mount Herzl, the latter apparently not pursuing Netanyahu’s invitation to address the Knesset – though Sara Netanyahu was heard inviting Abbas to visit.

It was hardly surprising that the Hamas terrorist regime condemned Abbas for attending the funeral, issuing a statement that the PA leader’s participation “disregarded the blood of the Palestinian people.”

What was indeed surprising was the refusal by Arab members of the Knesset’s Joint List to attend. Party leader MK Ayman Odeh stated that this was because of the “complicated” relationship the former president had with the country’s Arab minority.

Amid the numerous salutes to Peres’s determined pursuit of peace, it was jarring to observe the rejectionist front being represented, not just by a terrorist organization, but by a party of Israeli parliamentarians.

Due to all of this, Abbas’s participation was an important step that should be appreciated by Israel and the Netanyahu government. The only response so far was a Facebook post by Education Minister and Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett, who slammed Abbas and Israelis who lined up to shake the hand of a man who he said “encourages the murder of Israelis.”

We disagree. Abbas took an important step on Friday, especially considering the criticism that he faced from among his own people. His decision to attend Peres’s funeral was important and sent a message not only different than the way Bennett portrayed him but also important as a step in changing Palestinian perception.

Nevertheless, Abbas should know this act alone will not be enough. He needs to take real steps to stop incitement, violence and educate his people to not hate Jews or Israelis.

At the same time, Netanyahu’s government – of which Bennett is a senior member – has the responsibility to do what it can to end this longstanding conflict and can take steps of its own to build up trust on both sides.

While Bennett’s Facebook post makes this seem politically unlikely, Netanyahu should not ignore Abbas’s presence at the funeral. Considering the short distance between Ramallah and Jerusalem – without traffic it probably took Abbas no more than 30 minutes from the Muqata to Mount Herzl – it was hard to believe that this was the Palestinian leader’s first visit to Jerusalem in six years.

The question now is whether Peres’s funeral will change that.

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