JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Under a white canopy on a forested hillside in the late summer sunshine, old friends and several adversaries brushed shoulders with one another on Friday as they mourned the death of Israeli statesman and Nobel laureate Shimon Peres.
Dozens of world leaders and hundreds of dignitaries gathered at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl cemetery, some hugging each other warmly, others greeting each other more cautiously, one or two briefly seeking to bridge the stark differences that divide them.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara shook hands and exchanged a few words with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who smiled deferentially, the first time the rival leaders had met in Jerusalem since 2010.
“Long time, long time,” said Abbas with warmth. Netanyahu, who has repeatedly accused Abbas of inciting violence and hatred against Jews, thanked him for coming, saying: “It’s something that I appreciate very much on behalf of our people.”
Shortly afterwards, Abbas took his place in the front row between Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, and Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, acting as a buffer between two European leaders who have clashed sharply on policy.
Nearby, U.S.President Barack Obama arrived with a large delegation. He kissed Abbas on each cheek and moved down the line of mourners, shaking hands with Peres’s relatives, with leaders and officials, before standing silently next to Netanyahu, with whom he has long had a fractious relationship.
Steps away, members of Peres’s extended family - sons, daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren - wiped tears from their eyes, which were hidden behind dark sunglasses.
A few rows back, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, known for his occasional verbal faux pas, kept his distance.
In an article written shortly before Britain voted to leave the European Union in June, Johnson suggested Obama’s part-Kenyan ancestry made him indisposed to Britain, the former colonial power, remarks critics called “dog-whistle racism”.
“WE BECAME FRIENDS”
For protocol reasons, former British prime ministers Tony Blair and David Cameron were not in the front row. But they sat alongside each other on white plastic chairs, next to Israel’s chief rabbi, and chatted and posed for pictures, setting aside any party-political differences they may have had.
In the front row, French President Francois Hollande listened stoically to the eulogies by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Netanyahu, Obama and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, paying little heed to his predecessor and potential presidential rival, Nicolas Sarkozy, who sat one row behind.
Bill Clinton is highly regarded in Israel and scores of people greeted him with broad smiles. He moved through the crowds, welcoming the attention. On Thursday, he stood before Peres’s coffin as it lay in state and shed tears for his old friend, with whom he worked for years in a failed attempt to reach a definitive peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Netanyahu and Peres, who died on Wednesday aged 93, were from opposite sides of the political spectrum and spent years openly at odds, with Peres’s vision of how to reach peace with the Palestinians in stark contrast to Netanyahu‘s.
While acknowledging those differences, Netanyahu has strived to say that he and Peres came to a much better understanding in recent years, and he underlined that message in his eulogy, which heaped praised on his one-time rival.
“Israel grieves for him, the world grieves for him, but we find hope in his legacy, as does the world,” said Netanyahu, who defeated Peres by barely 30,000 votes in an election in 1996, the event that marked Netanyahu’s rise to power.
“It’s no secret that Shimon and me were political rivals, but over the years we became friends, even close friends.”
Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Richard Balmforth