By Femi Fani-Kayode
One of the greatest souls that ever bestrode the earth, a champion and founding father of the Jewish State of Israel, a former freedom fighter, a former soldier, an internationally-acclaimed statesman, a Nobel Laureate, a former Minister, a former Member of the Israeli Parliament for 50 years, a three-time Prime Minister of Israel, a President of the Jewish state, a diplomat, a peacemaker, an institution in the politics of Israel and the Middle East and the most experienced leader and politician that the State of Israel was ever blessed with, President Shimon Peres, has passed on at the ripe old age of 93.
How, indeed, are the mighty fallen!
I had the singular honour and distinct privilage of meeting Shimon Peres on, at least, two occasions. The first was when I was a student at Cambridge University in 1984 where he came to deliver a lecture on the State of Israel and the complicted politics of the Middle East.
After the lecture, a few of us from the Friends of Israel Society of the university paid him a courtesy call at his hotel and when I told him that I was from Nigeria, his eyes lit up and he wanted to know everything that was happening in my country.
He listened attentively and after I finished analysing the situation to him (we had experienced a coup d’etat, which brought General Muhammadu Buhari to power one year before), he said two things to me, which I shall never forget.
Firstly, that I must endeavour to return home after completing my studies in the United Kingdom to help to build my nation and move her forward because Nigeria had so much potential.
Secondly, he said that he knew my father very well and that they had met on several occasions through the 1960’s and again in the 1970’s just after our civil war. He told me that they had been good friends since that time though they had lost contact over the years.
I was astounded because throughout our conversation, he never gave me the slightest idea that he knew my father right up until the very end when we had finished and we were about to leave.
He told me to go back to Nigeria and to spend my life, trying to “make a difference” in the affairs of my country and that I must always do all I can to stand for and fight for the State of Israel. I was touched and humbled and I never forgot those words or that counsel.
The next time I met him was 22 years later in 2006 at the United Nations Heads of Government meeting in New York. I was Minister of Culture and Tourism at the time and when I went to see him after the various meetings, the first thing he asked me was how my father was.
When I told him that he had passed on 11 years earlier he was clearly saddened and visibly moved and he said, “you must do all you can to keep the flag flying and build on his great legacy”. I have never forgotten those words either.
He also told me that he was happy and proud of the fact that I had taken the advice that he gave me when I was a student at Cambridge in the 1980’s and that I was helping to move my nation forward by going into politics.
He reminded me that I must always remember that I had a friend in him and in the State of Israel. He touched my very soul with those encouraging words and with his obvious concern for my welfare and career.
The truth is that in all my years, I have never met a powerful and influential public figure and an international statesman that was as kind, generous, compassionate, interesting, intelligent, widely-read, well-informed, humble and caring as President Shimon Peres.
Unlike most people that are on his very high level, he was not self-absorbed, he did not have an over-bearing sense of self-importance, he did not hog the conversation and he did not spend 99 per cent of the time talking about himself or his country.
He asked questions about you and spoke about you, your country and your challenges as much as he did about his own. He was a father to all.
Most importantly he made you feel as if you were the king of the world and part and parcel of a much bigger and wider family and brotherhood of humanity.
In him I did not just see yet another great and powerful Israeli leader that was simply fighting for and speaking to protect and further the interests of his nation from an existential and very real threat. Rather than that, I saw and met a man that was brimming with compassion and a deep and honest desire to make the world a better and safer place for all of humanity.
His achievements in his over 70 years of public service for his nation are legion and too many to be mentioned here.
However no tribute to him can be complete without, at least, a mention of the heroic role that he played, alongside his mentor, the great President Ben Gurion, in the establishment and liberation of the State of Israel.
Again, we cannot but mention the courageous role he played during all three wars that took place between the Arabs and Israel since the creation of the Jewish state in 1948.
Again, we cannot but mention his noble efforts during the American President Jimmy Carter-sponsored Camp David negotiations in 1978, which resulted in the historic peace treaty that was signed bewteen Egypt and Israel.
Again, we cannot but mention his role in the famous “raid and rescue” operation in Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976 when over 140 nationals of the Jewish state were taken hostage by Arab terrorists that had hijacked their passenger plane. They were later rescued in a daring and audacious raid by Israeli commandos that flew in all the way from the Jewish state, killed all the terrorists, freed all the hostages and flew them all back home to Israel safely. Shimon Peres co-ordinated that whole operation.
Finally, we cannot but mention his contribution to the signing of the American President Bill Clinton-sponsored Oslo Peace Accords in 1993.
There is no doubt in my mind that without Shimon Peres, the Oslo Peace Accords would never have been signed and the relative peace that is being enjoyed today between Israel and her Arab neighbours would have eluded both sides for many more years.
It is a testimony to the fact that the signing of the Oslo Accords was such a huge breakthrough, success and triumph for the moderate forces on both sides of the divide in the Israeli/Arab conflict and that it was such a source of torment for the hardliners that Prime Minister Yizthak Rabin, who had signed it and secured the peace was asassinated by a right-wing Jewish extremist, simply for daring to build that bridge of peace. Thankfully, the extremists did not manage to asassinate Shimon Peres as well but this was not for want of trying.
I have little doubt that the world will miss this great and amiable gentleman who wanted nothing but peace. When it came to world politics and international affairs, he was the classic and quintessential “primus inter pares”: The first amongst equals.
He was a true son of King David. He was Jehu, Daniel and Solomon all rolled into one. Like Julius Caesar, he was a collosus that bestrode the earth. He was a Spartan. He was a Roman. He was a Mermidan. He was a great warrior: A Titan and an Immortal.
He was Hector, the tamer of horses and Achilles, the slayer of giants. He was Alexander the Great, the conqueror of the civilised world. He was a man that dedicated and devoted his entire life and being to the service and defence of the Jewish state. He was a powerful intellectual and a formidable adversary. He was a righteous and compelling man: A strong man that was not afraid of treading the path of peace.
If there had been more like him, the Middle East and indeed the entire world would have been a better and safer place today.
O Son of David, the world will not be the same without you. We celebrate your life and achievements as you transcend the stars and enter into eternity and the throne room of El Shaddai, the Living God.
Your beloved Israel mourns you and so do all her true friends from all over the world.
May the Elohim and the Adonai, the King of Kings, the Lord of Hosts and the Ancient of Days forgive you for all your sins; may He have mercy on you; may He honour you with His glorious prescence; may you bow and dance before Him in the prescence of the 24 elders, the angels, the Archangels and the saints; may He cause you to drink deep from the still waters of Elysium; may He reward you with unspeakable blessings; may He fill you with joy in abundance and may your gallant and courageous soul rest in peace.
We that are the friends and lovers of Israel will never forget you, even as we continue the fight on the earthly plain.
Permit me to end this tribute with the words of the Greek poet Simonides, who lived from 556 BC till 468 BC. In his famous epitaph for the 300 Spartans, who fell at the battle of Thermopylae he wrote:
“Go tell the Spartans, passerby, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.”
The 300 Spartans, under the command of their King Leonides at Thermopylae, were heroes. They fought for their nation and their people to the last breath. They fought to the last minute, to the last man and to the very end. So did President Shimon Peres. Shalom Al Israel.
• Fani-Kayode is former minister of aviation.