One of the quiet steady cornerstones of American-Israel relations over the last eight years has been US President Barack Obama admiration for Shimon Peres.
Obama hosted him at the White House and planted a tree in his Jerusalem garden in 2013 while Peres was serving his term as the 9th president of Israel. In 2012, he awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Upon his death, Obama ordered the US flag to be flown at half-mast, a gesture that is typically reserved only for American citizens.
The two men were an odd diplomatic couple. They belong to different faiths, lived their lives in different continents and were born almost half-a-century apart.
Although they are both politicians and experienced heads of state, their biographical narratives could not have been more different.
Peres was an Eastern-European-born Jewish-Israeli, while Barack Obama, is an African-American Christian who was born in Hawaii.
Yet, upon hearing of Peres’s death, Obama stopped his schedule and took a 12-hour flight to eulogize a man, already two years out of office. After doing so, flew straight back to Washington D.C.
Such a trip was not a given. Former US president George Bush did not travel to Israel to attend the funeral of former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, in spite of their much touted and much more public relationship.
As Obama stood at the wooden podium in Jerusalem on Friday, with Peres’s coffin to his right and Israeli flags fluttering to his left, he spoke of the ties that bridged the divide between him and Peres to create an unlikely friendship.
Obama said that Hawaii where he was born “could not be further [from] where Shimon spent his youth” and yet, he added, “ I took great pleasure in my friendship with this older, wiser man.”
Obama explains to the mourners that he was “the 10th US President since John F. Kennedy to sit down with Shimon; the 10th to fall prey to his charms."
“I think of him sitting in the Oval Office, this final member of Israel’s founding generation, under the portrait of George Washington, telling me stories from the past, but more often talking with enthusiasm of the present — his most recent lecture, his next project, his plans for the future, the wonders of his grandchildren.
“In many ways, he reminded me of some other giants of the 20th century that I’ve had the honor to meet — men like Nelson Mandela; women like Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth — leaders who have seen so much, whose lives span such momentous epochs, that they find no need to posture or traffic in what’s popular in the moment; people who speak with depth and knowledge, not in sound bites. They find no interest in polls or fads.”
Indeed, Peres’s atypical funeral, the largest in Israel since the one held for slain Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, seemed to be an oasis, from the reality of diplomatic strife and the fast-paced universe of political life.
The 93-year old Israeli diplomat emeritus, who wanted the epithet on this tombstone to read, “He was too young to die,” believed he could bend reality and time to his will.
Upon his death, diplomatic time did briefly seem to stop, as world leaders flocked to the Mt. Herzl cemetery.
Even diplomatic foes, such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas who passed each other in the halls of the United Nations without nary a word just a week earlier, came together under the white canopy that was stretched above the mourners heads to protect them from the sun. They even shook hands and exchanged a few pleasantries.
It is not just that death, the ultimate equalizer, reminded the mourners of the inconsequence of the antagonistic battle lines they often harbor and the value of pausing to recall a friend.
It went beyond the desire of world leaders to pay respect to Peres’s efforts over the four decades to bring peace to the Middle East.
Peres's optimism and persistence inspired them to believe in miracles, while his ability to touch people’s hearts, made them want to reach out in return.
But for Obama, there were a number of extra elements at play. He saw in Peres, a man, who like himself, achieved success against all odds. Peres battled anti-Semitism, just as Obama combated racism, to become top diplomates on the world stage.
“We shared a love of words and books and history. And perhaps, like most politicians, we shared too great a joy in hearing ourselves talk.
“But beyond that, 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.
When Peres “was still a teenager when his grandfather was burned alive by the Nazis in the town where Shimon was born. The synagogue in which he prayed became an inferno,” Obama said.
“From an early age, Shimon bore witness to the cruelty that human beings could inflict on each other, the ways that one group of people could dehumanize another; the particular madness of anti-Semitism, which has run like a stain through history,” said Obama.
Peres’s heart was not hardened and his faith was not extinguished by that hatred, Obama explained.
"Instead, it broadened his moral imagination, and gave him the capacity to see all people as deserving of dignity and respect. It helped him see not just the world as it is, but the world as it should be,” Obama said.
The friendship between him and Peres, Obama explained, was not just a tale of two statesmen, but also of two nations, steeped in values that made success possible for men like himself and Peres.
His ties to Peres, Obama said, were also symbolic of the deep connection between the United Staes and Israel.
“For all of our differences, both of us had lived such unlikely lives. It was so surprising to see the two of us where we had started, talking together in the White House, meeting here in Israel. And I think both of us understood that we were here only because in some way we reflected the magnificent story of our nations,” Obama said.
From the start of Obama’s presidency, he has had an acrimonious relationship with Netanyahu, that often made pundits speculate about the demise of US-Israeli relations.
On Friday, as he stood in Jerusalem, Obama shed light on the quiet friendship, that highlighted the reasons why the two nations are bound together, and why he himself feels such a strong connection to the Jewish state.
Both countries, Obama said, were built “in large part by stubborn idealists and striving immigrants, including those who had fled war and fled oppression. Both our nations have flaws that we have not always fixed,” Obama said.
“But because our founders planted not just flags in the eternal soil, but also planted the seeds of democracy, we have the ability to always pursue a better world,” Obama said.
Then he bid farewell to Peres, with the Hebrew words, “Todah Rabah Haver Yaker,” which mean, “Thank you very much cherished friend.”