JERUSALEM — President Barack Obama hailed Shimon Peres Friday as a man who showed the world that justice and hope are at the heart of the Zionist ideal and saw “all people as deserving of dignity and respect.”
Wearing a Jewish skullcap as a sign of respect and reverence, Obama said he was the 10th president to fall prey to Peres’ charms and that they forged an unlikely friendship, despite the nearly four-decade gap in their ages and starkly different backgrounds.
“It was so surprising to see the two of us, where we had started, talking together in the White House, meeting here in Israel,” he said. “I think both of us understood that we were here only because in some way we reflected the magnificent story of our nations.”
“The last of the founding generation is now gone,” Obama said, speaking just to the left of Peres’ casket draped in blue and white. Peres died at 93 Wednesday, two weeks after suffering a stroke.
Obama and other world leaders hailed Peres for his vision and his leadership in securing a strong defense. But they also spoke of his never-ending quest for peace. Obama said Peres understood the Palestinians must be seen as equal in dignity to Jews and therefore must be equal in self-determination.
“Shimon never saw his dream of peace fulfilled,” noted Obama, speaking at Israel’s national cemetery, Mount Herzl.
“The region is going through a chaotic time,” the president said. “Threats are ever-present and yet he did not stop dreaming and he did not stop working.”
In many ways, he said, Peres reminded him of other giants like Nelson Mandela and Queen Elizabeth, leaders “who speak with depth and knowledge, not in sound bites.”
Former President Bill Clinton, in his eulogy, said he was in awe of what he called Peres’ endless capacity to move beyond the most crushing setbacks to seize the possibilities of each new day. “He never gave up on anybody; I mean, anybody,” Clinton said.
Peres, whose name is synonymous with Israel’s history, served stints as prime minister, president and foreign minister. He welcomed Obama on his first trip to Israel as president in 2013, as the two men sought to restart a peace process with the Palestinians that has so far failed.
The United States delegation included Clinton, Secretary of State John Kerry and about 20 members of Congress and several administration officials.
Air Force One landed in Tel Aviv at daybreak Friday, and Obama headed back to the airport as soon as the service ended. He participated in the eulogy portion of the service and walked to the grave site with family members and other world leaders. Obama watched as the coffin was lowered and 10 wreaths were placed next to the grave.
The two leaders shared similar visions for a two-state solution to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Peres’ son-in-law and personal physician, Dr. Rafi Walden, said Obama had called the family the night of Peres’ death and spoke to Peres’ daughter, Tzvia. “We are deeply moved,” Walden said.
Obama awarded Peres the Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor, in 2012, saying “Shimon teaches us to never settle for the world as it is.”
In turn, Peres bestowed the Medal of Distinction on Obama, making him the first sitting U.S. president to receive Israel’s highest civilian honor.
“This award speaks to you, to your tireless work to make Israel strong, to make peace possible,” Peres said in 2013. “Your presidency has given the closest ties between Israel and the United States a new height, a sense of intimacy, a vision for the future.”
Those who worked with both men said they shared mutual respect and affection.
“Even a man into his 90s, Peres was always thinking about the future,” said Dennis Ross, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former adviser to Obama. “I think that captured the president’s imagination and added to the respect for him.”
Ross, who said he spoke often with Peres during the past three decades, said the Israeli leader believed that Obama’s heart was in the right place. But “he wasn’t always convinced that the president fully understood the nature of Israel’s predicament in the region,” Ross said.