President Clinton repeated Prime Minister Netanyahu’s first words from the morning after the death of Shimon Peres. This was the first day of the State of Israel without Shimon Peres, he said.
So it was for all the world leaders who assembled atop Mount Herzl last Friday morning to bid farewell to their fellow diplomat and friend. None had experienced a time without Shimon Peres.
He was the quintessential diplomat and politician, who always was there. Always ready to engage. Always ready to serve. And he served in more capacities than any other person, not only in Israel, but probably throughout the field of diplomacy and government. Like the prophets of ancient Israel, he found where the breach was, and that was where he stood.
He led where others did not, and where the path was uncertain, save for the focus of his vision. Whether it was the pursuit of peace or security, agriculture or high tech, Peres always pushed forward, never giving up on Israel’s potential to be a light unto the nations. Up to the end he was criticized, both for his peace initiatives and also, at least out of Gaza, for his militancy, settlements, and occupation of Arab lands. But he never let disappointments sway him from his dreams.
Peres was an extraordinarily successful politician because he knew how to win people over, how to appeal to their concerns, how to charm them and earn genuine friendships. He also was an extraordinary failure in that despite sitting in the prime minister’s chair three times, he never won an election outright. He even lost his first election for the ceremonial post of president, which is supposed to be a fait accompli Knesset vote on the sitting prime minister’s nomination.
But in the end, he was revered and loved more than any other Israeli head of state. Even in death, he worked to heal the divisions around him. Just as he brought Rabin and Arafat to shake hands on the White House lawn, so he brought Netanyahu and Abbas to shake hands before his casket, in front of two American presidents and the world.
And if that was not enough, he also brought President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu together, sitting with each other, together consoling his children.
Peres, while certainly a proponent of partisan views, proved time and time again that the true statesman learns to stand above such divisions for the sake of the country. Whether it was the unity government deal with Shamir in 1984, or leaving Labor to join with Sharon in forming Kadima in 2005, or, in 2009, when he was president, deciding to extend the invitation to form a government to Netanyahu rather than Tzipi Livni even though Kadima won more seats than Likud (but in Peres’ correct judgment, Netanyahu had a better chance of forming a stable government), Peres demonstrated how the true statesman knows how to transcend partisan lines to do what is right.
This is a wisdom that we see as lacking in government these days. And while it may be one of the reasons why Peres was not as successful in the election booth as more traditional politicians were, it also explains why he was so beloved by leaders throughout the world.
As is so often the case, we only begin to appreciate the true level of someone’s greatness when they are gone. When they are here, we take them for granted. And how could Peres not be taken for granted? He was, after all, the one who always was there from the beginning.
But now, during these sacred days, as we focus on reaffirming God’s sovereignty over ourselves if not the world, and as we repeat the prophecies of old, of the day that God’s sovereignty truly will be established so that all the world will assemble in Jerusalem, we must pause and realize that Peres brought all the world to assemble in Jerusalem just last week.
As his last gift, the quintessential dreamer gave us a picture of what the dreams of Isaiah and Jeremiah look like.