Kristine L Ming

Analysis: Conflicting messages from the Peres funeral

The parade of presidents, prime ministers and princes that filed into Mount Herzl Friday afternoon to pay final respects to Shimon Peres should, rightfully, fill the country with pride.

Here was an A-list of world leaders who – at a moment’s notice – dropped everything, and flew halfway around the world to attend the funeral of the last of Israel’s founding fathers.

Even those extremely critical of US President Barack Obama’ policies toward Israel over the years had to admit that it was both an impressive and moving gesture on his part to spend almost a full day-and-night on a plane in order to spend just six hours on the ground in Israel to pay his respects to Peres.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – undoubtedly moved by such a massive show of respect by much of the world for a man who had become a walking symbol of the country – should be careful not to misinterpret the gesture.

Obama’s arrival, like the arrival of so many of the others leaders – at least the European ones – was a gesture toward Peres, not toward the government of Israel. This was a salute to an idealized Israel that Peres represented, not to the flesh-and-blood Israel as is.

And if anybody had any doubts about this, all they had to do was listen to Obama’s eulogy. It was a eulogy that recognized the travails of Jewish history, and celebrated the wonder of Israel’s rebirth.

But it was also a eulogy that praised Peres for his large dreams, while needling the current leadership for their small ones. It contrasted the Israel that Peres believed the country could be, to the one that actually exists. Obama said he didn’t believe that – as so many critics have said over the years – Peres was naïve. Rather, he asserted, Peres understood that “true security comes from making peace with your neighbors.”

Even in the face of terror attacks and negotiations that disappointed, Peres “insisted that as human beings Palestinians must be seen as equal in dignity to Jews, and therefore must be equal in self determination,” Obama said.

The US president compared Peres to other leaders he has met – people such as Nelson Mandela and Queen Elizabeth – “leaders who have seen so much, whose lives spanned such momentous epics, that they find no need to posture or traffic in what is popular at the moment.

“People who speak with depth and knowledge, not in sound bytes. They find no interest in polls or fads. Like these leaders, Shimon could be true to his convictions even if they cut against the grain of popular opinion.” Obama said. “He knew better than the cynics that if you look out over the arc of history, human beings should be filled not with fear, but with hope.”

Though he may not have been looking directly at Netanyahu, it was clear to whom his words were directed.

Obama’s words outlined the ideal Israel, the Israel Obama – and much of the world – want to see, even in the face of endless terrorism and threats. They came to Jerusalem Friday because they were touched by Peres’ vision, and wanted to do something to nurture it.

That is one message the Israeli public could take from Friday’s funeral: This is the Israel to which the world wants you to aspire.

But the other message was that it doesn’t really matter what you aspire to, because the other side is not going to be there for you anyway. And this message was rammed home by the absence – with the very notable exception of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas – of the leaders of the Arab world or the elected representatives of the Israeli Arab public.

Abbas’s presence is highly commendable, especially in light of the harsh criticism he has come under from various factions in the Palestinian territories because of his decision to come to the funeral. This was a courageous political move, and an important gesture to the Israeli public from a man not known for caring all that much about gestures to the Israeli public.

But equally telling was the fact that he was the highest ranking Arab leader in attendance. Also revealing was the absence of any representatives from the Joint List, the party representing Israel’s Arab public.

Peres had a vision – a vision embraced by the world, as evidence by the number of leaders who arrived. How ironic, therefore, that the objects of this vision – the Arab world – were so noticeably absent from the funeral.

For the last 30 years of his life Peres had tried to forge a new reality with Israel’s neighbors. World leaders beat a path to Mount Herzl because they identified and supported his vision of peace with the Arab world, and because they wanted to send a message of encouragement to Israelis to keep going down that path.

But the people with whom he had hoped to make peace with were, for the most part, missing from the crowd. That, too, sends a message. If the Joint List MKs boycott the funeral of Peres, the man who preached co-existence; if Jordan’s King Abdullah II, whose father had a close relationship with Peres, can’t make the journey across the Allenby Bridge to pay last respects, then why go through the motions? It won’t work.

On the one hand the public can look at who came to the funeral and be awed by the respect the country could garner if it pursues Peres’s path. But, on the other hand, it can also look and see who among the country’s neighbors did not come and ask themselves a simple question: What’s the use?

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