JERUSALEM: Israel on Wednesday mourned the death of Shimon Peres, a former president and prime minister whose life story mirrored that of the Jewish state, as the government began preparations for a funeral that is expected to bring together an array of world leaders and international dignitaries.
Peres, celebrated around the world as a Nobel Prize-winning visionary who pushed his country toward peace during a remarkable seven-decade career, died early Wednesday from complications from a stroke. He was 93.
News of Peres’ death was met with an outpouring of tributes from around the world.
“There are few people who we share this world with, who change the course of human history, not just through their role in human events, but because they expand our moral imagination and force us to expect more of ourselves. My friend Shimon was one of those people,” said President Barack Obama.
Obama was among a list of leaders tentatively expected at Peres’ funeral in Jerusalem on Friday. After earlier saying that Obama and Hillary Clinton would be attending, spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said there was “no definite answer.” Earlier, the ministry also backtracked on a claim that the pope would be coming.
Despite the confusion, a high-powered group of world leaders, including French President Francois Hollande, was expected for what would be the largest such gathering in Israel since the funeral of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by a Jewish ultranationalist in 1995.
Officials said Peres’ body would lie in state at the Knesset, or parliament, on Thursday to allow the public to pay final respects. His funeral will take place at Mount Herzl, the country’s national cemetery in Jerusalem. Yona Bartal, a former personal aide to Peres, said the arrangements were in line with his wishes.
Peres’ son, Chemi, confirmed his death Wednesday morning to reporters gathered at the hospital where Peres had been treated since suffering a stroke on Sept. 13.
“Our father’s legacy has always been to look to tomorrow,” he said. “We were privileged to be part of his private family, but today we sense that the entire nation of Israel and the global community share this great loss. We share this pain together.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened his Cabinet for a special meeting, where he praised Peres despite their deep ideological differences. “Shimon devoted his life to our nation and to the pursuit of peace,” he said. “As Israel’s president, Shimon did so much to unite the nation. And the nation loved him for it.”
Bill Clinton and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton said they “lost a true and treasured friend.” Clinton was president when Peres helped negotiate a historic interim peace agreement with the Palestinians in 1993.
Former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush also issued statements of mourning.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas issued a statement expressing his “sorrow and sadness” over Peres’ death
He called Peres “a partner in making the peace of the brave” with the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Rabin. All three men shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the Oslo interim peace accord, which Abbas helped negotiate.
“He exerted persistent efforts to reach a just peace from the Oslo agreement until the final moments of his life,” Abbas said.
While Western leaders lionized Peres, he had a mixed legacy with the Palestinians, who appreciated his stated commitment to peace but held him responsible for a deadly artillery strike that killed dozens of civilians in Lebanon while he was prime minister in 1996. Peres, like other Israeli leaders, also allowed settlement construction to take place during his years in leadership positions.
In the Gaza Strip, the ruling Hamas militant group called Peres “the last remaining Israeli official who founded the occupation.”
“His death is the end of a phase in the history of this occupation and the beginning of a new phase of weakness.” said Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for the group.
There was little official reaction from elsewhere in the Arab world.
At home, Peres was the elder statesman of Israeli politics, one of the country’s most admired leaders and the last surviving link to its founding fathers.
In an unprecedented seven-decade political career, Peres filled nearly every position in Israeli public life and was credited with leading the country through some of its most defining moments, from creating what is believed to be a nuclear arsenal in the 1950s, to disentangling its troops from Lebanon and rescuing its economy from triple-digit inflation in the 1980s, to guiding a skeptical nation into peace talks with the Palestinians in the 1990s.
Shimon Perski was born on Aug. 2, 1923, in Vishneva, then part of Poland. He moved to pre-state Palestine in 1934 with his immediate family. His other relatives stayed behind and perished in the Holocaust. Rising quickly through Labor Party ranks, he became a top aide to David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and a man Peres once called “the greatest Jew of our time.”
As protege of Ben-Gurion, Peres led the Defense Ministry in his 20s and spearheaded the development of Israel’s nuclear program.
He was first elected to parliament in 1959 and later held every major Cabinet post — including defense, finance and foreign affairs — and served three brief stints as prime minister.
And yet, for much of his political career he could not parlay his international prestige into success in Israeli politics, where he was branded by many as both a utopian dreamer and political schemer. He suffered a string of electoral defeats: competing in five general elections seeking the prime minister’s spot, he lost four and tied one.
He finally secured the public adoration that had long eluded him when he was chosen by parliament to a seven-year term as Israel’s ceremonial president in 2007, taking the role of elder statesman.
Peres was celebrated by doves and vilified by hawks for advocating far-reaching Israeli compromises for peace even before he negotiated the 1993 accord with the Palestinians that set into motion a partition plan that gave them limited self-rule. That was followed by a peace accord with neighboring Jordan.
But after a fateful six-month period in 1995-96 that included Rabin’s assassination, a spate of Palestinian suicide bombings and Peres’ own election loss to the more conservative Netanyahu, the prospects for peace began to evaporate.
Relegated to the political wilderness, he created his non-governmental Peres Center for Peace that raised funds for cooperation and development projects involving Israel, the Palestinians and Arab nations. He returned to it at age 91 when he completed his term as president.
Despite continued waves of violence that pushed the Israeli political map to the right, the concept of a Palestinian state next to Israel became mainstream Israeli policy many years after Peres advocated it.