Israel Pulse

How Netanyahu took advantage of Peres’ funeral

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Article Summary
When eulogizing late President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu actually praised his own diplomatic vision and persona.

The eulogy delivered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the funeral of former President Shimon Peres on Sept. 30 was filled with emotional descriptions of personal, almost familial, moments the two had shared. But on listening again to the prime minister’s words, it’s hard to shake off the feeling that he was perhaps eulogizing Peres — but speaking mostly about himself. More than anything, it was a political speech designed to underscore Netanyahu’s just, chosen path.

The text read by the prime minister at the funeral was a masterpiece — recognizing Peres’ tremendous contribution to the State of Israel, focusing on his record in the defense arena, but completely ignoring his political one. Netanyahu did not mention the 25 years that Peres dedicated to a search for peace with the Palestinians based on division of the land and the Oslo Accord.

In the same vein, Netanyahu ignored the courageous leadership of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who decided to take part in the ceremony on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl cemetery despite harsh criticism in the Arab world in general and in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in particular. The prime minister was concerned about the harsh criticism that would be directed at him from the right wing in Israel, and did not mention his Palestinian colleague at all.

On the sidelines of the funeral, Netanyahu held a series of nonbinding diplomatic talks with attending world leaders. The meetings were widely publicized by his office to draw attention away from the important meeting that wasn’t — with US President Barack Obama, who flew in for the ceremony. Netanyahu also had no intention of using this emotional event, attended by several of the world’s central warriors for Israeli-Palestinian peace, to breathe life into the Oslo process.

Turning to personal recollections, Netanyahu twice mentioned his late brother Jonathan (Yoni) Netanyahu, killed in the 1976 hostage rescue operation in Entebbe, Uganda. The first mention came at the start of his speech, when he described the eulogy delivered by Peres, then minister of defense, at Yoni’s funeral on Mount Herzl. “He delivered a deeply stirring eulogy, which I will never forget. It was the first time I ever met him. My late parents, my brother and I were profoundly moved by what he said about Yoni, about the operation, about the bond with our forefathers and about the pride of our nation. From that point on, a special bond was formed between us.”

The second time Netanyahu mentioned his brother came toward the end of his speech when on a personal note he turned to Peres' coffin and said, “You said that one of the few times you shed a tear was when you heard the tragic news of the death of my brother Yoni. You cried then, Shimon, and today I weep for you.”

Mentioning Yoni Netanyahu twice in a relatively short eulogy for a man who accomplished as much as Peres is somewhat exaggerated, and it sheds light on one relatively minor aspect of the relationship between the two men. Peres was not only Netanyahu’s political rival, he was the leader of the camp that opposed Netanyahu after the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

The description of the intimacy and heart-to-heart talks between the two when Netanyahu reclaimed the premiership in 2009 and Peres was president does not reflect the complex and fraught relationship between the two in recent years.

Netanyahu described a late-night meeting in the presidential residence that turned into an argument about a core issue for the State of Israel: What is paramount — security or peace? And this is how the prime minister described the conversation:

“Shimon enthusiastically replied, ‘Bibi, peace is the true security. If there will be peace, there will be security.’ And I responded to him, ‘Shimon, in the Middle East, security is essential for achieving peace and for maintaining it.’ The debate intensified.

"We went back and forth for hours, flinging arguments at one another. He came from the left, I came from the right.

"I came from the right, and he came back from the left.

"And in the end — like two worn-out prizefighters — we put down our gloves. I saw in his eyes, and I think he saw in mine, that our principles stemmed from deep-seeded beliefs and a commitment to the cause — ensuring Israel's future.”

What Netanyahu was essentially saying through this description of events was that Peres valued him as someone devoted to ensuring the future and security of the State of Israel. He presented his own view that in the stormy Middle East only the strong rule — a concept opposed, according to him, to the naivete of Peres and of the left.

Reality was less romantic than the prime minister described. In recent years, Peres was concerned that Netanyahu was leading Israel to perdition. In private conversations he sounded truly fearful about Israel’s declining international standing. A political source who met with Peres during the past year told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the former president had asked, “What’s he [Netanyahu] doing? He’s surrounding us with fences. He’s isolating the State of Israel, sowing fear and dividing the people.”

Peres had his fill of disappointments with Netanyahu. Peres felt cheated after believing him when he said he intended to bring about a historic peace agreement with the Palestinians, and publicly advocated against Netanyahu’s alleged intention to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, seeing this as a disastrous step.

The bottom line is that on Sept. 30, at the site where the greatest leaders of the Jewish and Israeli nation are buried, more than two decades after the funeral of Rabin at the same spot, Netanyahu stood on the podium as a winner. Then he was the beleaguered chairman of the opposition, leader of the right-wing camp that was blamed for the incitement to murder Rabin. Peres was then prime minister, having taken over from Rabin as leader of the peace camp. Several months later, Netanyahu surprised the world when he beat Peres for the premiership in the 1996 elections.

Twenty years on, the leadership of the state is entirely in the hands of the right, from the president (Likud’s Reuven Rivlin) down to the last of the government ministers. The crushed peace camp is in the opposition, seeking direction, a pale shadow of what it was two decades ago. In this sense, Peres’ funeral was the last vestige of a different era, a kind of epilogue to the assassination of Rabin.

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Found in: two-state solution, shimon peres, reuven rivlin, peace, mahmoud abbas, israeli-palestinian relations, benjamin netanyahu, barack obama

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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