Barack Obama honors Shimon Peres with the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House in 2012.
(photo credit: GPO)
When a great man dies his loss is felt. This is particularly true in the case of Shimon Peres, who was active until his very last days. The tremendous outpouring of emotion from around the world is just one indication of the profound mark Peres made during his lifetime.
Dozens of statesmen are expected to attend the funeral, which is slated to be the largest gathering of world leaders in Israel since the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. But of all the statesmen who will be in Jerusalem to pay tribute to Peres, one stands out: US President Barack Obama.
That the leader of the most powerful nation in the world found the time to make the long trip to Israel as a personal gesture of honor to Peres should not be taken for granted.
The US president went out of his way both literally and figuratively to pay his respects to Israel’s former president and prime minister and by extension to Israel.
In an unusually long and personal statement, Obama described their first meeting, while he was a United States senator, and he described their conversations in detail.
“Shimon was the essence of Israel itself,” he said.
“A light has gone out, but the hope he gave us will burn forever,” he said. “Shimon Peres was a soldier for Israel, for the Jewish people, for justice, for peace and for the belief that we can be true to our best selves – to the very end of our time on earth and in the legacy that we leave to others.”
Obama added that Peres had changed the course of history by expanding the “moral imagination” and forcing people to expect more from themselves.
In a rare act of respect, Obama ordered all US flags on federal property to be flown at half-staff through sunset Friday in memory of Peres.
Obama’s order covers all federal buildings and grounds throughout the United States and its territories, as well as embassies, military bases and other facilities abroad.
Obama’s extraordinary statements and acts of respect toward Peres can be attributed in part to the US president’s affinity for Israel and the Jews. From the beginning of his political career, Obama has received the support of America’s Jewish community – particularly the liberal-minded among them – first in Chicago and later nationwide.
Obama’s expansive statements on Peres and the speed with which he announced his intention to attend Peres’s funeral reflect more than his affinity for Israel. Obama personally identifies with Peres and sees in him a role model and a man who represents Israel’s best qualities. He was the face of Israel that Obama – and many others – want to see: a committed optimist who was convinced the forces of technology and human progress are unabashedly positive and ultimately unstoppable. This led him and many other Israelis to believe that peace was attainable.
Obama also knew that Peres believed him when he said America has Israel’s back whether on the Palestinian front or on the issue of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Though his critics accused him of being naive and disconnected from reality, Peres is so widely admired because he refused to remain a pragmatic, realistic politician. He was a true leader who, in the words of Obama, “expanded our moral imagination.” He urged us all to go beyond the here and now to a brighter future.
Obama is likely to use the occasion of the funeral to encourage Israel to fulfill Peres’s legacy by renewing attempts at dialogue with the Palestinians.
“I can think of no greater tribute to his life than to renew our commitment to the peace that we know is possible,” Obama said.
We hope that Obama will stand by the principle which Peres supported, namely that any peace agreement reached between Israel and the Palestinians must be the result of dialogue and mutual compromise. Unilateral moves – such as a UN Security Council resolution – are counterproductive and will not lead to the peace that Peres and those he inspired knew was attainable.
Though Obama clashed frequently with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the issues of settlements and the Iran nuclear deal, ties between the countries have remained strong.
On Obama’s watch there was unprecedented military cooperation between the US and Israel, which climaxed with the signing of the 10-year, $38 billion military aid package earlier this month. Obama’s arrival to bid farewell to one of Israel’s founding fathers is another expression of that relationship, one that we should appreciate.