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Leaders mourn Peres, who Chretien says had 'no regret, always looking forward'

The family of former Israeli President Shimon Peres watch as the casket is carried to the state service in Jerusalem, Israel Friday September 30, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
September 30, 2016 - 12:15 PM

JERUSALEM - Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his Liberal and Conservative predecessors and political luminaries from around the world gathered Friday to mourn Shimon Peres — the Israeli statesman hailed by many as a dreamer and visionary who personified the hope for peace in the Middle East.

Trudeau, joined by former prime ministers Jean Chretien and Stephen Harper, led a Canadian delegation to Jerusalem to attend the state funeral for Peres, who died Wednesday after suffering a stroke at the age of 93.

Peres was devoted to serving his country and the people who elected him, Chretien said in an interview after the funeral.

"People dump on people who serve in public life," he said. "He did it all his life with no regret, always looking forward. It is a tough life to be a politician."

Mount Herzl national cemetery was brimming with political giants and dignitaries, including Prince Charles, U.S. President Barack Obama and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who sat in the front row alongside Peres family members.

Trudeau sat beside Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto in the second row of mourners while Harper, Chretien, interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose and Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion sat together in the next row.

"Shimon never saw his dream of peace fulfilled," Obama said during a heartfelt eulogy. "And yet he did not stop dreaming, and he did not stop working."

No one in the Canadian delegation was among the speakers at the solemn outdoor ceremony, which took place in sweltering early-autumn heat under a sprawling white tent. Trudeau did, however, join a small group of international guests who met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his home after the funeral.

"It reminds me as a Canadian how special the relationship between Canada and Israel has been for decades," Ambrose said afterward.

Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion tweeted his own tribute: "Canada has lost a friend, Israel a father. Rest in peace, Shimon."

Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, held every major office in Israel, including president and prime minister. He personified the history of Israel during a remarkable seven-decade political career and who came to be seen by many as a visionary and symbol of hopes of Mideast peace.

When the Jerusalem Post asked Peres two years ago about his greatest achievement as president, the paper reported this week, Peres cited what he described as his personal intervention to prevent an Israeli airstrike on Iran.

The report was based on notes taken during an August 2014 meeting where Peres outlined how he reportedly told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that attacking Iran would have "catastrophic" consequences.

When the paper's editor-in-chief asked Peres for permission to report the bombshell revelation, Peres reportedly said: "When I'm dead."

On Friday, Obama described the unlikely friendship he forged with Peres given their vastly different backgrounds.

"It was so surprising to see the two of us, where we had started, talking together in the White House, meeting here in Israel," he said. "I think both of us understood that we were here only because in some way we reflected the magnificent story of our nations."

He said Peres never tired, never dwelled on the past, and always seemed to have another project in the works.

"It is that faith, that optimism, that belief, even when all the evidence is to the contrary, that tomorrow can be better that makes us not just honour Shimon Peres, but love him," he said.

"The last of the founding generation is now gone," he added. "Toda rabah haver yakar," he said, Hebrew for "thank you so much dear friend."

Friday's funeral was Israel's largest gathering of international dignitaries since the funeral of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Peres' partner in peace, who was killed by a Jewish nationalist in 1995.

Clinton, who was president when Peres negotiated a historic interim peace accord with the Palestinians in 1993, called him a "wide champion of our common humanity."

He described a warm, 25-year friendship and dismissed critics who described Peres as a naive dreamer. He recalled a meeting with Peres where Israeli and Arab children sang together John Lennon's "Imagine."

"He started life as Israel's brightest student, became its best teacher and ended up its biggest dreamer," said Clinton.

"He lived 93 years in a state of constant wonder over the unbelievable potential of all the rest of us to rise above our wounds, our resentments, our fears to make the most of today and claim the promise of tomorrow."

The funeral created numerous logistical and security challenges, and roads, including the main highway from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, were closed.

— with files from The Associated Press

News from © The Canadian Press, 2016
The Canadian Press

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