Despite a profoundly fractured and politically charged environment marred by violence and distrust, Jewish and Arab residents of Jerusalem on Wednesday reached a consensus on one issue: Shimon Peres was a great leader and man.
As world leaders and local politicians send carefully worded statements celebrating the life and achievements of the former prime minister and president, regular Israelis expressed unfiltered praise for Peres, the likes of whom they said come once in a generation.
“No one can take away what he did,” said Nataniel, a 32-yearold eyeglasses salesman in downtown Zion Square, who requested his last name not be published.
“Some of the things he did were controversial, but I’m sure he thought it was the best for the country, and I’m sure he will be remembered as a good politician, trying to do the best he can.”
While Nataniel deemed the Oslo Accords calamitous, he nonetheless said there was never any doubt about Peres’s intentions.
Israel and the world bid farewell to Shimon Peres
“I think Oslo was a disaster, although the intention was good,” he said.
Asked what the late leader’s greatest contribution was, Nataniel responded with one word: “Israel.”
“He was one of the founding fathers – one of the key advisers to David Ben-Gurion, and he pulled a lot of strings to help build Israel,” he said. “I hope that the country will remember the good things he did and learn from his mistakes.”
Nasser Alkurd, 53, a Palestinian businessman from the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, who owns three gift shops in the capital, said Peres represented a bygone era, when both Jews and Arabs had hope for peace.
“In the beginning, before all the problems in the ’90s, we believed in Shimon Peres – that he was a peacemaker, especially for the Arabs,” said Alkurd. “But now, because of the bad situation, most Arabs think all Israeli and Arab politicians are against them, so they can’t talk nice about any of them.
“This is what’s going on in everybody’s mind who lives in Jerusalem with a blue ID card,” he said. “They don’t trust either [side] now because the people are paying the price, not them.”
Indeed, according to Alkurd, Peres was perhaps the only Israeli politician who was capable of achieving an enduring peace.
“I, myself, believed in him because he was not an enemy to us,” he said. “He wanted to make peace. But I don’t believe in the others – no one. Shimon Peres, for me, was one of the guys who – if he had the chance, and had good people around him like him – would have made peace.”
Now, Alkurd said, politicians from both sides of the conflict are too consumed with self-interest and power to truly lead.
“Everybody is after money and seats,” he said. “They don’t care about making peace.”
Osher Dahan, a 23-year-old salesman, said he recently studied Peres’s life, shortly after learning of his stroke.
“I read about all the things he’s done for Israel, and I have to say he’s one of the characters that built our country from the beginning with Ben-Gurion,” he said.
“For someone who came to Israel when he was 11, he made huge changes in our country."
“There are some points that I disagreed with him about, such as the Oslo agreement,” Dahan said. “But all in all I think he made a huge impact in Israel. When I see interviews with him, he was everywhere when this country was founded, and each country welcomed him. He had an attitude that everyone liked. It’s something that not many people have.”
Shir, a 24-year-old waitress who requested her last name not be published, expressed grief over Peres’s passing.
“I think he was a very impressive person who influenced a lot of people in Israel and our history,” she said. “And it’s very sad that he’s gone, but he had an amazing life.”
Rafi Fintis, 70, who was born and raised in Jerusalem, said many of Peres’s achievements will likely remain shrouded in secrecy.
“I am very sad, very sad,” he said. “He was one of the biggest men in politics in Israel since I knew of him. A lot of people still don’t know [everything] he did, and maybe they won’t know for another 20 years because the people who know can’t talk.”
In terms of Peres’s greatest contribution, Fintis cited his ceaseless efforts to create peace until his last day.
“He tried very hard with the Arabs,” he said. “He talked to [Yasser] Arafat during Oslo, even though Arafat changed his mind.
He worked with Jordan; he was involved in everything in Israel’s [modern] history. I don’t think in the next 40 years there will be somebody like him.
“He was old, he was not a young man, and he tried [his best] all the time,” Fintis said. “He didn’t stop.”
Shad Awad, a 30-year-old Palestinian mother of four from Shuafat, said Peres did “more for Arabs than any other politician.”
“We didn’t know him well, but we knew he was good,” she said.
Mahmoud, 36, who lives in the capital’s French Hill neighborhood where many attacks have been carried out against Jews, requested his last name not be published.
“In my point of view, he tried his best to do things to create good changes in this country,” he said. “But [the conflict] is bigger than him.”
While Mahmoud conceded that not all Arabs supported Peres, he said he would nonetheless be irreplaceable.
“He tried to do the best thing for all people,” he said. “He was a great man.”