President Barack Obama delivered a eulogy for former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres that praised the late leader, his Zionist mission and even the Haganah, but also said that Peres did not want Israel to be a place of slaves and masters.
Peres is being mourned as the two-state solution he championed looks impossible, as billions of shekels-worth of Israeli roads and walls and settlements grow across the West Bank.
Peres’ militant youth in the Haganah, his overseeing of the settlement of Palestinian land and his cultivation of Israel’s acquisition of nuclear weapons did not do anything to make the world a safer or more peaceful place, but the world still associates Peres’ legacy with making strides for peace, no matter how doomed they were to collapse under the weighty reality of occupation. With this legacy in mind, Obama used Peres funeral as his last opportunity as president to remind his audience that the wandering route of the peace process is far from over.
At the start of his speech, after acknowledging the sorrowful Peres family, Prime Minister Netanyahu, heads of state, guests and so forth, Obama addressed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ presence at the funeral as a “gesture and a reminder of the unfinished business of peace.”
Obama made a speech that was full of soaring Obamanian platitudes, (“justice and hope are at the heart of the Zionist idea,” is an example) but also punctuated by the throwing of unmistakable shade in neon lights.
“When his family got the chance to go to Palestine, his beloved grandfather’s parting words were simple: ‘Shimon, stay a Jew.’”
Peres’s grandfather was burned alive in the Holocaust, Obama said, when Peres was just a teenager. Obama did not leave his Holocaust reference hanging. Instead, in writing the rapidly expanding hagiography of Peres, Obama said his passion for peace was one tied to a passion for justice.
“From an 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,” Obama said.
Peres had an “understanding of man’s ever present sinfulness,” Obama said, that “broadened his moral imagination and gave him the capacity to see all people as deserving of dignity and respect.”
The most brazen paragraph in Obama’s speech was one in which the president said Peres felt the Palestinians were of equal worth to Jews, and as such deserved their own state.
‘The Jewish people weren’t born to rule another people,’” he [Peres] would say. ‘From the very first day we are against slaves and masters.’ The hardships of the diaspora he found room in his heart for others who suffered. He came to hate prejudice with the passion of one who knows what it feels to be its target. He insisted as human beings Palestinians must be seen as equal in dignity to Jews and must be equal in self-determination. Because of his sense of justice, his analysis of Israel’s security…he believed that the Zionist ideals would be best protected when Palestinians too had a state of their own. Of course, we gather here in the knowledge that Shimon never saw his dream of peace fulfilled.
And while Obama’s speech recognized the contrast between the Poland of Peres’ birth and pre-Nakba Palestine, and mentioned the rights of Palestinians people, Obama’s speech was not without its clear endorsement of Israeli militarism. Obama made a subtle references to Peres as having been the righteous builder of Israel “defense architecture” that even his critics relied on. By that, Obama means Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal.
Yousef Munayyer has noted that Obama used the speech to swipe at Netanyahu:
Obama: "People who speak in depth and knowledge, not in soundbites" yet another jab at Netanyahu
— (((YousefMunayyer))) (@YousefMunayyer) September 30, 2016
Obama compared Peres to Nelson Mandela, but the president did not mention that Israel likely obtained uranium for creating its nuclear weapons from Apartheid South Africa, in return for technology that helped South Africa build and briefly maintain its own collection of nuclear weapons. Those bombs were meant to let the white minority there annihilate indigenous African people, if push came to shove. Peres in 1974 helped set up the potentially-apocalyptic exchange.
Obama was clear: Instead of being blinded by faith in humanity, Peres saw the universal depravity of human beings, understanding the reality of industrial and atomic extermination, and how Israel fit into it.
“He wasn’t naive,” Obama said.