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Obama mourns Shimon Peres, and a bygone Israel

When President Barack Obama visited Jerusalem in 2013, Shimon Peres, then 89 years old and in his fifth decade of public life, might have been expected to forgo...
Shimon Peres Funeral

When President Barack Obama visited Jerusalem in 2013, Shimon Peres, then 89 years old and in his fifth decade of public life, might have been expected to forgo the tour of high-tech innovations at the Israel Museum.

But Peres, ever-passionate about the unfolding opportunities of science, was there introducing his ninth US president to a panel of Israeli and Arab engineers cooperating on boosting the country’s computer and technology sectors.

It was a convenient alignment of both men’s visions for the region and the broader world, one where shared interests — preferably rooted in the economies and ideas of the future — can bridge centuries-old divisions.

“They are doing a job for the community, they are very proud, and they can do it all over the world,” explained the Israeli president, who would host Obama at his home later that evening after the American leader delivered a speech in the West Bank.

For a US president whose ties to Israel became ever more complicated during his two terms in office, Peres represented a dependable voice for friendship, even as many of Israel’s other leaders took an assertive stance against some of Obama’s top priorities.

More in synch with Obama’s vision of global politics and regional peace than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who as head of the government determines the country’s policies, Peres fostered ties with the US President that extended well beyond bilateral interests. He embodied a different Israel, one that seemed to be the kind of country Obama wished he might have partnered with as president.

“When he talked, everyone listened,” Obama wrote in a lengthy, personal statement after Peres died Wednesday in Israel. “And later, long after he’d left the room, you remembered what he said. It crept into your soul and stayed with you. Shimon Peres was truly a force of nature.”

Obama hopes to evoke that during remarks at Peres’ funeral on Friday, held at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl cemetery. He’s leading a US delegation of dozens, including former President Bill Clinton, who developed his own attachment to Peres during talks that led to the signing of the Oslo Accords on the South Lawn of the White House in 1993, for which he won the Noble Peace Prize.

It’s only the second time Obama has traveled overseas last-minute to attend a fellow leader’s memorial; he flew to South Africa in 2013 to attend services for another Nobel laureate, Nelson Mandela. And on Wednesday, Obama ordered flags on federal grounds and buildings flown at half-staff, a rare honor for a foreign leader.

“I saw there was a deep friendship there, it was a genuine friendship,” said Michael Oren, who served as the Israeli ambassador to the United States from 2009 to 2013. “The position of President of the State of Israel is largely honorific. You don’t have a lot of political power. You do have a moral platform, and that counted a lot for President Obama.”

The pair met almost every year of Obama’s presidency, including in 2012 when Obama bestowed upon Peres the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest US honor for a civilian, during a gala celebration at the White House.

The warmth Obama expressed for Peres at the ceremony stood in stark contrast to his many cold encounters with Netanyahu. The Israeli and American leaders clashed throughout Obama’s tenure over conflicting world view, politics and agendas.

Peres provided a balm, an Israeli standard-bearer who lined up with Obama’s own visions for the country and its neighbors. At times, Peres even took Netanyahu to task for tangling with Obama.

Unlike Netanyahu, who railed against the US-backed agreement with Iran to curtail its nuclear program, Peres largely withheld criticism, saying the deal should be assessed over time. When the prime minister — Peres’ rival stemming back to the 1996 Israeli elections — lobbied against the deal during an address to Congress at the invitation of Republicans, the former president rebuked his countryman.

“Bibi (Netanyahu) can make speeches at any place or date, but when the President of the United States asks him not to come before elections, he must respect that request,” Peres said in 2015, referring to Israel’s upcoming vote soon after the congressional address.

Obama’s relationship with Peres began even before the junior senator from Illinois entered the White House. During his trip to Israel as a presidential candidate in 2008, Peres told the first-term senator he’d read both of his autobiographies, stepping away from the books with a sense of “moving humanity.”

“They say the future belongs to the young — they are wrong,” Peres said then. “The present belongs to the young. The young should now take care of the burning issues.”

To both men’s disappointment, the burning issue of peace between Israel and the Palestinians remained elusive. Efforts to negotiate an accord at various points of Obama’s term fell apart, and administration officials have acknowledged that restarting talks will be unlikely during the few months remaining in Obama’s presidency.

The White House has cited the expansion of Israeli settlement activity on Arab land as unhelpful to the process and chafed at Netanyahu’s public wavering over a two-state solution, a bedrock American goal.

“Given the state of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, or the absence of negotiations, I think it’s probably one of Peres’ bitterest aspirations never fulfilled,” said Aaron David Miller, who served in Republican and Democratic US administrations and is now vice president of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. “He desperately, I think, wanted to put his stamp, his mark, and largely for the good of the Israeli polity, find a way to deal with the most complicated of all of Israel’s relationships.”

Obama’s aides have not ruled out the President taking some steps toward laying out a framework for Middle East peace before he leaves office. Some see Peres’ death as a moment to redouble efforts toward an agreement, though officials downplayed the chance that Obama would press the case during his trip Friday to Israel, which was expected to last only hours.

Among Palestinians, many of whom view Peres in a harsher light than Americans or Israelis, there was scant optimism that the moment was right for peace talks to begin anew.

“I know today many people are celebrating the notion of peace, maybe the illusion of peace, but in reality, we still don’t have peace,” said Mustafa Barghouti, leader of the Palestine National Initiative political party. “This whole celebration and idealization of the notion of peace should, in my opinion, push those Israelis who are now saying there is no place for Palestinian statehood and for a Palestinian free state to reconsider. It should also push the people of Israel to stop electing the most extreme leaders.”

In the United States, it’s Obama’s successor who will be left to carry on the effort. Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, said in a statement this week that Peres “personified dignity and grace in a region of the world where both run far too short.”

But Trump has expressed skepticism about the Palestinians and given little indications that he would push either side to come to the table and make concessions in search of a peace deal.

His Democratic opponent is more likely to embrace Obama’s peace efforts, but it’s not clear that she will make it the priority he did after having little show for it. Meanwhile, the Oslo process welcomed by her husband has also failed to bring a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Clinton, whose ties to Peres run far deeper than Trump’s dating back to her time as first lady and secretary of state, said in a joint statement with her husband she had “lost a true and treasured friend.”

Unlike the last dozen US presidents, Trump or Clinton won’t be meeting any members of Israel’s founding generation, now that the last one is gone. And he or she will come into office on the heels of a relationship that’s weathered displays of deep animosity over the last eight years.

While Obama and Netanyahu made an attempt during a meeting last week to put forward a positive display of ties — including a $38 billion decade-long military aid agreement — deep differences over the region persist.

Amid his contentious encounters with Israel over the years, Obama counted on backing from Peres, a like-minded optimist who was similarly often viewed more favorably abroad than at home.

“We shall not forget that basically (Obama) is a great friend and a good friend, and I trust him,” Peres told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in 2014. “And I don’t mind to hear criticism from a friend. I hope he doesn’t mind to hear it, too.”

“Friendship,” said Peres, “is not just that all the time you’re flirting.”