Nearly a full day after the death of former president Shimon Peres, the only Arab leader to express condolences on his passing by Wednesday night was Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Even Israel’s peace partners, Jordanian King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, had yet to comment on the former Israeli president’s death, or to confirm whether they plan to attend his funeral in Jerusalem on Friday.
Arad Nir, the foreign affairs commentator for Channel 2 TV, said it would be “very sad” if the people who Peres negotiated with did not attend the funeral. “It puts a question mark on Shimon Peres’s vision, his life’s mission: Peace,” he said.
The PA’s official news agency Wafa reported Wednesday afternoon that Abbas had sent a condolence letter to Peres’s family.
Abbas expressed his “sadness and sorrow,” and wrote that “Peres was a partner in making the brave peace with the martyr Yasser Arafat and prime minister (Yitzhak) Rabin.” He added that Peres “made unremitting efforts to reach a lasting peace from the Oslo agreement until the final moments of his life.”
But no word was offered from Abbas’s office as to his participation in Peres’s Friday funeral, and several senior Palestinian officials reached by Israeli journalists avoided the question, hung up the phone, or explained that they did not know if he was due to attend.
This ambiguity came despite several conversations between Israeli and Palestinian officials, The Times of Israel has learned, in which the Israelis suggested that the attendance by a PA representative, and especially its president, could have a positive effect on Israeli public opinion.
While Abbas did express condolences at the passing of a man who spent half a lifetime pursuing peace with the Palestinians, there was complete, official silence from every Arab capital, including Israel’s peace partners and occasional counterterrorism allies Egypt and Jordan as of Wednesday night.
Both Sissi and Abdullah knew Peres; Abdullah met him more than once. Both are believed to have respected the Israeli leader. Yet both seemed cowed Wednesday by fear of a domestic public backlash.
Earlier this week, Abdullah allowed his government to sign a historic $10-billion deal to import natural gas from Israel. Sissi, for his part, has met (secretly) with senior Israeli officials and cooperates with the IDF in his battle against Islamist terror.
But Arab media including al-Jazeera presented Peres on Wednesday as responsible for the April 1996 Qana attack, when Israel Defense Forces’ artillery fire on a UN compound in the southern Lebanese village killed 106 civilians. The incident, which took place amid heavy fighting between Israel and Hezbollah in the area, also enjoyed pride of place in Hamas media coverage of Peres’s passing, and may have shaped the way Peres’s death was framed throughout the Arab world in the hours following his death.
Iran’s state television on Wednesday called him “the butcher of Qana.”
“He will stand in front of God and defend himself for his heinous crimes against humanity,” said Hamad al-Qahtani, a Kuwaiti government employee. “He killed refugees, orphaned children and destroyed families. May he get what he deserves.”
“He often presented himself as a man of peace, but no one in the Arab world really believed him,” said Abdullah el-Sennawy, a prominent Egyptian columnist. “Whenever there was war, he was there.”
“Peres was a significant contributor to the historic injustice that occurred to the Palestinian people,” Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian government spokesman in the West Bank, wrote on his Facebook page, in comments relating to the establishment of Israel in 1948, considered by Palestinians as a “naqba,” or catastrophe.
As a Defense Ministry official during the 1950s, Peres helped turn Israel into a regional military power and played a central role in secretly developing what is widely believed to be a sizable nuclear arsenal. And after Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war, Peres was an early defender of efforts to build Jewish settlements in the captured territory, the biblical Judea and Samaria — a position he would later change. In his later years, indeed, Peres became a staunch advocate of territorial compromise with the Palestinians, and prominent supporter of Abbas as a peace partner for Israel.
“Shimon Peres was an example of how the world can forget someone’s crimes if they only live long enough,” Sultan Saoud al-Qassemi, a popular commentator in the United Arab Emirates, wrote on his Twitter feed.
Not all the reaction in the Arab world was negative.
In Iraq, Iyad Jamal al-Din, a Shiite cleric and former politician, praised Peres as a “wise leader who helped his people.”
“What have Arab leaders done for their people? Peres turned Israel from a militia to a state. Today, the last wise man of the Israelis has passed,” he said.
Iranian political analyst Hassan Hanizadeh said Peres had been a moderating force in the region and helped prevent conflict. Netanyahu and other hard-liners will now have “a more free hand in implementing their hard-line policies in the region and world,” he said.
Abbas could still decide to come to the funeral, and Sissi and Abdullah could yet choose to issue statements and/or attend. As of Wednesday night, however, the Middle East after Peres’s passing looked very much like the old one he so fervently sought to change.