A stranger attending the state memorial ceremony for Israel’s ninth president Shimon Peres could be forgiven for thinking that Peres had died this week instead of five years ago. There were more than two hundred people in attendance including President Isaac Herzog, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, former prime minister and Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, former prime minister Ehud Olmert, along with members of the Peres family, government ministers, past and present members of Knesset, former political colleagues of Peres, diplomats, supporters and staff of the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation and many others.
Conspicuously absent were former president Reuven Rivlin, former prime minister Ehud Barak and Chief Rabbis David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef. Both rabbis made their pledges of duty and loyalty in the presence of Peres at the President’s Residence in 2013.
The accolades were repetitive but in different contexts. Peres, the only president who also served as prime minister, foreign minister, defense minister, finance minister, and a string of other ministerial positions, was remembered for his intellect, his optimism, his refusal to be bowed by defeat, his vision but most of all for his ability to turn his dreams into reality, and to never be afraid to dream. His greatest legacy by way of the impression that he left on so many, was to dream big. In his autobiography, written shortly before his death, he wrote that he regretted that he had not dreamed big enough.
The tone for the remarks was set by Shai Abramson, who usually appears at state ceremonies in army uniform in the role of chief cantor of the Israel Defense Forces.
This time he wore a business suit, and in addition to his cantorial contribution to the event, was also master of ceremonies.
It was he who said that Israel is missing Peres’s words of wisdom which have become so increasingly relevant. He cited Peres’s vision for the future, his unconquerable optimism, and his dream for peace for the region.
Israel start-ups are increasingly helping to make the world a better place, said Abramson, alluding to Peres’s encouragement of initiative and innovation, “and his vision of a new Middle East is becoming a reality.”
Looking out at the crowd, Herzog surmised that each person present had their memories of Peres, but doubted that anyone other than members of the Peres family could say that they knew him from the time they were born.
Herzog, who looked on Peres as his guide and mentor, said that they had spent thousands of hours together in moments of joy and excitement and times of crisis and sorrow. He recalled his visits to Sheba Medical Center where Peres was hospitalized after his collapse and said that he had shared the prayers and hopes of all those who were anxiously waiting for Peres to get up and out of his hospital bed. Unfortunately, that did not happen.
TWO MONTHS ago, said Herzog, he had stepped into the shoes filled by Peres when he was Israel’s ninth president. “Indeed, there is hardly a pair of shoes that he did not fill in our country’s history, and barely a public office that he did not hold.” Relating to his own multi-faceted career, Herzog said that every time he entered a new role, even one that had been previously held by Peres, he thought about the lessons that he had learned from him. These lessons included diversity and versatility; the ability not only to understand but to actually know about developments in economics, science, technology, culture and sport.
Herzog noted that as committed as Peres was to Israel’s security, his pursuit of peace was uncompromising.
Herzog also praised Peres’s persistence. Remembering in 1996, when he served as special adviser to Peres, he was with him when Peres was defeated in the elections and was preparing to hand over the reins of office to Netanyahu, Herzog reminisced: “He sat in the prime minister’s chair. The bookshelf behind him was empty. There was a stony expression on his face. His staff wept. After a short time, Peres left the room in silence, but the following day while everyone was still in shock, he invited them to his office in Tel Aviv and began looking towards fresh tasks.”
Peres was a well-known and popular figure on the global political landscape, and a sign of the esteem in which he was held could be seen in the number of world leaders who attended his funeral, said Herzog.
Bennett quoted a remark that Peres has made at his 90th birthday party: “Today I understand that true strength is the strength of goodwill.”
Reflecting on those words, Bennett said: “Today we understand how right he was. Goodwill triumphs, because it puts all personal differences aside for the benefit of the state.”
In describing his own take on Peres, Bennett said: “He was not passive; he was active. He was not a pessimist, he was an optimist. He was always ready to serve the nation whether it was organizing the Entebbe rescue operation, fighting inflation, or developing relations with other countries in the region. He dreamed, and he brought his dreams to realization. Even when his dreams did not become a reality, he woke up every morning with a new dream.”
Turning to the Peres family, Bennett said: “His absence is felt not only by you but by many.”