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Monday 19 March 2018

Stars mark Israeli leader's 90th

Shimon Peres walks past Robert De Niro and his son Julian Henry De Niro (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)
Shimon Peres walks past Robert De Niro and his son Julian Henry De Niro (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

Hollywood superstars have joined Israeli and global leaders and local celebrities to honour president Shimon Peres for his forthcoming 90th birthday, reflecting world respect for one of the country's peace pioneers.

Mr Peres is hosting his annual presidential conference that brings together an array of artists, thinkers and leaders to discuss issues relevant to Israel and the world.

In an event that kicked off the conference, Barbra Streisand sang a prayer in Hebrew and belted out one of her greatest hits, People, to enthusiastic applause. Former US president Bill Clinton was ushered to the stage by a quintet of saxophones.

Leaders and public figures from around the world - including Russian president Vladimir Putin, US president Barack Obama and Bono - sent their good wishes to Mr Peres. His birthday is in August, but organisers felt it would be difficult to bring back such a star-studded, high-powered crowd so soon so the conference, held every June, is doubling as a birthday bash.

Mr Clinton, who on Monday prodded Israelis to hasten to make peace with the Palestinians, stepped away from politics at the two-hour long celebration, choosing instead to poke fun at Mr Peres's age, calling him "the last living Israeli who knew King David".

Scattered in the audience among Israeli cabinet ministers and local clergy sat actors Robert De Niro and Sharon Stone. Rwandan president Paul Kagame sat in the front row beside former UK premier Tony Blair, now an international envoy to the Middle East.

Instrumental in building Israel's military in the first days of the state six decades ago, he served twice as prime minister and promoted peace between Israel and the Palestinians, sometimes reaching far ahead of his own people. For his role in the landmark interim peace accord in 1993, he received the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize with then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and then Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

His tireless campaigning for a peace agreement has won him supporters and sympathisers around the world. His last five years as Israel's president has also gained him affection at home, absent during much of his political career.

The star of the night was Streisand, dressed in a flowing black dress accented with gold jewellery. Streisand sang the Jewish prayer Avinu Malkeinu, which Mr Peres called "heavenly" and gave her a long embrace and two kisses on the cheek. The prayer, which means "our Father, our King" is recited on the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur, a day of fasting and reflection. Streisand said the prayer was meant to "cause all hate and oppression to vanish from the earth".

Mr Peres, who serves in a largely ceremonial position, was serenaded by local musicians and entertained by dance troupes, one of which intercut its music with inspirational quotes from the nonagenarian leader. "We long for peace with our neighbours," Mr Peres said to the applauding crowd. "The yesterday between us and the Palestinians is full of sadness. I believe that the Israel of tomorrow and the Palestine of tomorrow can offer our children a ray of hope."

Press Association

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