JERUSALEM—Even in death, Shimon Peres managed to bring Israelis and Palestinians together.
With peace efforts in a deep freeze, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made his first trip to Jerusalem in six years to attend Peres’ funeral Friday, shaking hands and making small talk with his longtime adversary, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and challenging the government’s narrative that he is not a reliable partner for peace.
It was a fitting tribute to Peres, who was the mastermind of the historic Oslo interim peace accord with the Palestinians in 1993. Despite years of setbacks, he remained Israel’s most outspoken advocate for peace until his death.
The Oslo process is in tatters after two decades of on-again, off-again negotiations and sporadic bouts of violence. The sides have only held two brief, failed rounds of negotiations since Netanyahu took office in 2009. The two leaders rarely speak and spend more time accusing one another of hindering peace prospects.
Friday’s encounter was brief but cordial. As Abbas arrived, Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, greeted him. Mrs. Netanyahu invited the Palestinian leader to come back for a visit.
Netanyahu and Abbas exchanged handshake at an international summit in France last year, but have not had a working meeting since 2010.
“Long time. Long time,” Abbas said.
“Thank you for coming,” Netanyahu responded. “Thank you, Mr. President.”
Turning his attention to Abbas’ aides, Netanyahu said: “Thank you for coming here. It’s something that I appreciate very much on behalf of our people and on behalf of Israel.”
During the ceremony, Abbas sat in the front row, alongside other world leaders.
While many came from great distances, it was Abbas, whose West Bank headquarters are just a half-hour from Jerusalem, who may have had the most difficult journey.
With the breakdown of peace talks, and during a wave of low-level violence over the past year, Abbas and Netanyahu have become bitter nemeses. At home, Abbas also faced great internal pressure to skip the event.
Palestinian officials said Abbas, who signed the Oslo accord at the White House with Peres in 1993, felt a duty to honor him.
“Our participation in Peres’ funeral today was a message of peace to the Israeli people,” said Hussein al-Sheikh, a Palestinian Cabinet minister who joined Abbas’ delegation. “Peres was our partner for peace in the Oslo accord, and we appreciate his efforts to bring peace, the peace that was not accomplished because of the resistance faced by the political parties that want to perpetuate the occupation.”
But they held out little hope that Friday’s meeting would lead to any changes.
Netanyahu has offered to meet with Abbas anywhere, anytime. But Abbas has refused to resume talks without a halt to Israeli settlement construction on occupied lands and a planned release of prisoners that Netanyahu canceled. Otherwise, he says a meeting will be nothing more than a photo opportunity.
Netanyahu, whose government is dominated by pro-settler politicians who oppose Palestinian independence, has rejected Abbas’ demands. The U.S., France and Russia have all tried to relaunch talks but have been unable to bridge the gaps.
President Barack Obama, who has had a chilly relationship with Netanyahu, praised the Palestinian leader for making the trip, saying: “His presence here is a gesture and a reminder of the unfinished business of peace.”
Obama also appeared to be sending a message to the Israeli leader as he lauded Peres’ legacy and compared him to “giants of the 20th century” like Nelson Mandela and Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.
“People who speak with depth and knowledge, not in soundbites, they find no interest in polls or fads,” he said. Peres “knew better than the cynic that if you look out over the arc of history, human beings should be filled not with fear but with hope.”
Abbas faced a much tougher reception with his own people. Although Peres was widely seen as a visionary and peace activist in the West, he was a controversial figure in the Arab world.
Animosity toward Israel remains high, and Peres is often remembered for his links to unpopular Israeli policies. As one of Israel’s founding fathers, Peres was associated with the “naqba,” or catastrophe, that befell the Palestinians in the war surrounding Israel’s creation, when hundreds of thousands fled or were forced from their homes.
Peres also helped turn Israel into a nuclear power in the 1950s, and he was an early defender of efforts of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, a position he later abandoned. Many hold Peres responsible for an Israeli artillery strike that killed dozens of civilians in Lebanon in 1996 while he was prime minister.
The rival Islamic militant group Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip from Abbas’ forces in 2007, called on Abbas not to go to the funeral. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a smaller political faction, also urged him to skip the funeral of the “Zio`nist war criminal.” Even the leaders of the Arab faction in Israel’s parliament skipped the funeral.
Yasser Zaatreh, a writer and a political analyst in the West Bank, tweeted Friday: “Handshakes and smiles between Abbas and Netanyahu at Peres funeral. Shame on him and shame on who is defending him.”
Makdi Khaldi, a diplomatic adviser to the Palestinian president, said Abbas had decided to attend after receiving an invitation from the Peres family, but he also felt it served the “Palestinian interest.”
“President Abbas is ready to go anywhere in the world to achieve peace, even if some people internally oppose such moves,” he said.