US President Barack Obama was in attendance at the funeral of former Israeli president and prime minister Shimon Peres, and was invited to eulogise the last of Israel’s founding fathers. Obama’s attendance and eulogy was evidence, if any was needed, of Peres’s standing in the international community and the circles in which Peres has moved during more than six decades of international diplomacy. In spite of Peres’s persona as an international statesman, his funeral was an intensely personal event for Israel and for members of the Peres family. This fact seems to have been lost on President Obama judging by the text of his eulogy.
It almost felt as though Obama was trying using his attendance at the funeral to compete with the last US president who attended the funeral of an Israeli statesman just over 20 years ago. On that occasion, President Bill Clinton created the simple but iconic phrase, “Shalom chaver” (Goodbye, friend), when eulogising late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Obama’s own attempt at creating an icon of a Hebrew phrase was not simple enough, and fell flat. Obama’s phrase, “Todah rabbah, chaver yakar” (Thank you, dear friend) seemed to be too much of a take on Clinton’s original phrase, and seemed much less sincere than the words uttered by Clinton two decades ago. Even Bill Clinton’s own eulogy on Friday of Shimon Peres seemed more sincerely spoken than that of Obama.
Obama had lost his way in his speech, and in the hearts of Israelis, long before the “Todah rabbah chaver yakar” was uttered. In fact, he had already succeeded in putting a foot wrong in his remarks of welcome, long before reaching the main part of his speech. As one would expect at such an occasion, President Obama acknowledged members of the Peres family in mourning, Israeli leaders and representatives and other world leaders in attendance at the funeral. This is where things started to go wrong. Out of all the foreign leaders, who attended the funeral, President Obama chose to mention only one by name in acknowledging his presence. That was the name of Palestinian Authority President Abbas whose presence, he said, “was a sign of unfinished business”!
That one comment infuriated me, and many of my fellow Israelis. Is this what Obama’s attendance at the funeral was all about? To promote his political agenda and highlight his political failings, at the state funeral of one of Israel’s founding fathers? And what did Obama hope to achieve by making this comment? His ability to achieve anything in Middle East peace-making is long past, as he enters the “lame duck” period of his presidency. So what positive could have come from this comment? To me, his comments indicated a lack of respect to those whose hospitality he was enjoying.
Out of all the elected leaders who had accepted the invitation of the Peres family and the Israeli government to attend the funeral, why did Obama choose to single out the one leader who does not enjoy a democratic mandate from his people to rule? And did he not understand that this was also the leader who has supported waves of terrorist attacks that have been undertaken against Israel and Israelis over the past few months and years? Even though Abbas may not have personally ordered these terror attacks to take place in the way that his predecessor did, he has provided Palestinian Authority money to the families of terrorists who were killed during the course of their murderous activities. And he has sent out messages of sympathy and made condolence visits to the families of these evil murderers. In doing so, Abbas has made clear to his people that such activities are acceptable and desirable. This, in turn, creates a new generation of terrorists. So for him to be standing on the hallowed ground of Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl at the funeral was already a huge concession in the view of many Israelis, perhaps an unjustified and undesirable concession. But Obama succeeded in rubbing salt into the wounds by choosing to give credibility and international standing to a man who is most unworthy of this.
What was the unfinished business that Obama was referring to? He would say that it is the unfinished business of making peace between Israelis and Palestinians. But the Palestinians show little desire to finish this, and have taken no active and meaningful steps in this direction. In Israel’s view, the unfinished business is that of removing the objective to destroy Jews and the Jewish homeland from the charter of the PLO, and to openly and unequivocally recognise Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Until that unfinished business is taken care of, and the support for terrorists is ended, there will be no further business.
There is no doubt that Obama was conscious that his comments would be controversial. He is well aware of the position that Prime Minister Netanyahu has taken on the issue of the peace talks, and the stand taken by the Palestinians. These remarks were made with full knowledge that they would cause a reaction, and that they would not be welcome. This represents an insult to his hosts, and was inappropriate and uncalled for.
The actions by the US president seem consistent with his behaviour towards Israel over the last few years. During the time of Obama’s presidency, the Palestinian Authority has had its status at the United Nations upgraded, been accepted as a party to the International Criminal Court in The Hague and taken on a much higher standing in the international community. All of this comes despite continuing to fund and encourage terror, and not being willing to recognise the democratic right of the State of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. Instead of holding the Palestinians responsible for acts of terror and being prepared to criticise this publicly, the US president has continuously castigated Israel for constructing homes in Israeli-ruled territory.
Prime Minister Netanyahu acquiesced to the request by the Peres family to invite Mahmoud Abbas to the funeral, and to seat him in the front row. His hands were tied in terms of agreeing to grant Abbas permission to enter Jerusalem for the funeral, even though he may have wished to act otherwise. Obama should have considered this enough, instead of making a more public spectacle of an already uncomfortable situation. Sometimes less is more, although Obama seemed insensitive to this during his eulogy.
It is somewhat ironic that Abbas’s presence at the funeral was also castigated by his own electorate, many of whom considered Peres an enemy of the Palestinian cause. With so many Palestinians and Israelis joining together in the dislike of Abbas’s presence at the funeral, perhaps this should have been a clear enough message to Obama that raising this in public would serve to damage his objectives rather than progress them. Perhaps this is a clear indication why American peace-making efforts, particularly those driven by Obama, have been so unsuccessful.