In his lifetime, regardless of which positions he held, Israel’s ninth president Shimon Peres maintained close contact with the heads of foreign diplomatic missions in Israel. He continued this practice after concluding his term as president. Not only diplomats but current and former heads of state and government as well as a bevy of foreign ministers and defense ministers made it their business to visit him in Jaffa at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, and he remained on the VIP guest list for the annual World Economic Forum in Davos and the Ambrosetti economic conference at Italy’s Villa de’Este in Cernobbio.
After his death in 2016, foreign ambassadors stationed in Israel continued to maintain a relationship with the Peres Center, which explains why so many of those who remained in the country during the summer were at Mount Herzl on Friday for the ceremony commemorating the second anniversary of Peres’s death.
Also present were President Reuven Rivlin, Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, members of Knesset, Opposition leader Tzipi Livni, Labor Party chairman Avi Gabbay, Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, along with three generations of the Peres family, and Shai Gross, who had been a six-year-old survivor from among the hijacked passengers who were saved during the Entebbe Rescue Mission of July 1976. Peres was defense minister at the time.
One of Peres’s outstanding characteristics was his unflagging optimism – even in the face of dismal disappointment. He did not brood in defeat, but looked for another path on which he could triumph.
At his own inauguration, Rivlin had quoted Peres in his opening remarks when he said: “Allow me to remain an optimist, and allow me to continue to dream.”
Although the president is technically apolitical, nearly all of Israel’s presidents, including Rivlin and Peres, were beamed upwards from a political role. Not surprisingly, neither was able to divorce himself from the political realities of the state.
Addressing Peres directly as he faced his tombstone, Rivlin said: “In recent months, it seems that Israeli solidarity has again been put to the test – the solidarity which was so important to you. The simple fact is that we are all the sons and daughters of this land, the sons and daughters of the State of Israel and of Israeli society. There are those who ask to what extent the state truly belongs to everyone, to what extent it’s good for everyone, and to what extent does it want everyone. You who always knew how to explain how we are all connected to each other, how much we are all responsible for each other, you who loved the people and the state and you were the flag bearer who strode ahead of the camp – you are no longer here with your wise, calm voice of encouragement. The spirit that inspired your ongoing optimism, your eternal faith in the good of humanity, are something we sorely miss in these difficult days…”
Noting that Peres had dreamt of the state as a boy and had contributed to its establishment as a youth, Rivlin said that after the state came into being, Peres was one of its great visionaries and activists. “Your fingerprints are embedded in the army and the defense establishment which achieved such a reputation in the world that states much larger and more powerful than ours ask to learn from us.” Rivlin added that while many are aware that Peres was one of the key architects of Israel’s security network, few understand the greatness of his contribution to Israel’s defense industries, economic stability and the flourishing of the state in general. Rivlin also mentioned Peres’s interest in and support for high tech industries which have made Israel known around the globe as the Start-Up Nation.
At the conclusion of his address, Rivlin said Israel is working towards the realization of Peres’s vision so that in time his great-grandchildren will be able to say that the accomplishments of the state were as great as Peres’s dreams.
During his presidency, when complimented by visitors from abroad on what Israel had achieved in so relatively short a period of time, Peres would smile and say, “Yes, but we didn’t dream big enough.”