World leaders including Prince Charles, US president Barack Obama, French president Francois Hollande, German president Joachim Gauck and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas have been paying their final respects to Shimon Peres, the former president and prime minister whose life story mirrored that of his country.
More than 90 delegations from 70 countries attended Friday morning’s funeral on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, Israel’s largest since that of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin – testament to the wide reach of Mr Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was his country’s strongest advocate for ending the conflict in the Middle East.
Barack Obama told mourners: “The last of the founding generation is gone. We draw strength from his example and the fact that he believed in us, even when we doubted ourselves. May God bless Shimon’s memory and the country he loved so dearly.”
President Reuven Rivlin, among the first to speak at the service, said: “You were not only a man of vision, you were a man of deeds. You had the ability to conceive what seemed to be the inconceivable, and see it to fruition
“You strived until your final breaths to reach the pinnacle of the Zionist dream: an independent, sovereign state, existing in peace with our neighbours. Yet you also knew that true peace could only be achieved from a position of strength, and you were sure to secure the path to this goal.”
Former US president Bill Clinton, who in office when Mr Peres negotiated a historic interim peace accord with the Palestinians in 1993, described the ex-Israeli leader as a “wide champion of our common humanity”.
He dismissed critics who had described Mr Peres as a naive dreamer. He recalled a meeting with Mr Peres where Israeli and Arab children sang John Lennon’s “Imagine” together.
Mr Clinton added: “He started life as Israel’s brightest student, became its best teacher and ended up its biggest dreamer.
“He lived 93 years in a state of constant wonder over the unbelievable potential of all the rest of us to rise above our wounds, our resentments, our fears, to make the most of today and claim the promise of tomorrow.”
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the gathering of world leaders was a testament to Mr Peres’ optimism, his quest for peace and his love for Israel.
“He was a great man of Israel. He was a great man of the world. Israel grieves for him. The world grieves for him.”
Mr Peres and the hard-line Mr Netanyahu were fierce political rivals, but Mr Netanyahu said they enjoyed a strong personal relationship.
He said: “I loved you. We all loved you. Farewell Shimon. Dear man. Great leader.”
The funeral has involved a complicated security operation, which included the closing of the major highway from the airport, as well as shutting down a large part of Jerusalem.
Schools near the national cemetery are closed, and thousands of additional forces have been deployed.
In contrast to an outpouring of grief from Western leaders, Arab leaders have remained largely silent over Mr Peres‘ death.
Mr Abbas was one of the few to express sorrow. A representative said he wanted to attend the funeral to send a message to Israeli society that despite the current stalemate, Palestinians still believe in peace and appreciate men of peace like Mr Peres.
Many in the Arab world are deeply critical of Mr Peres because of his role in building Israel’s defence arsenal, his early support for West Bank settlements and for waging war in Lebanon while prime minister.
Israeli Arab leaders, whose community Mr Peres championed, were also conspicuously quiet.
“We have strong objections and criticism to Peres of the occupation, of building the settlements and the crimes in Qana (in Lebanon),” said Ayman Odeh, head of the Arab Joint List in parliament.
Arab social media sites also featured caricatures depicting Mr Peres as the angel of death.
However, Khalid al-Khalifa, the foreign minister of Bahrain, issued a rare Arab tribute. “Rest in peace President Shimon Peres, a man of war and a man of the still elusive peace in the Middle East,” he tweeted.
Mr Peres‘ casket lay in state in the plaza outside the Knesset as soldiers in uniform, teenagers from youth movements and Israelis from all walks of life lined up on a warm September day to pay their respects.
They were joined by former US president Bill Clinton, the first foreign dignitary to arrive.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin laid wreaths beside the casket early on Thursday.
Mr Clinton, escorted by Mr Rivlin and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, stopped by later, staring solemnly at the casket without commenting.
The casket was covered in a blue and white Israeli flag and watched over by a small honour guard as two military officers recited psalms.
Mourners slowly walked by, laying wreaths, snapping photos and praying. A picture of a smiling Mr Peres, with a black stripe in its corner, was placed besides a flickering candle and in front of a row of Israeli flags at half-staff.
Parliament spokesman Yotam Yakir said around 25,000 Israelis had arrived by midday, and he expected that to double by evening, a staggering number when people are hectically preparing for the Jewish New Year holiday that begins on Sunday.
A protege of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding father and first prime minister, Mr Peresserved in parliament for nearly half a century, held every major Cabinet post – including defence, finance and foreign affairs – and served three brief stints as prime minister.