Peres to lie in state as Israel honours last founding father

JERUSALEM - The body of Shimon Peres is to lie in state outside Israel's parliament on Thursday as the world pays tribute to a statesman whose funeral is expected to draw leaders from around the globe.

The ex-president and Nobel Peace Prize winner died on Wednesday at the age of 93 after suffering a stroke.

In a career spanning seven decades, he held nearly every major office, serving twice as prime minister and as president from 2007 to 2014.

He won the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize jointly with prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for his role in negotiating the Oslo accords, which envisioned an independent Palestinian state.

US President Barack Obama, one of many world leaders expected to attend Peres's funeral on Friday, paid tribute to a friend who "never gave up on the possibility of peace".

"There are few people who we share this world with who change the course of human history, not just through their role in human events, but because they expand our moral imagination and force us to expect more of ourselves," he said.

"My friend Shimon was one of those people."

Other leaders due to attend the ceremony include Britain's Prince Charles, former US president Bill Clinton, French President Francois Hollande and Spain's King Felipe VI.

Peres's body was to lie in state for 12 hours outside Israel's parliament, the Knesset, with tens of thousands of ordinary Israelis expected to pay tribute to a man who shaped so much of Israel's history.

The country's blue and white flags would be lowered to half-mast around the world from Thursday morning.

Security was being further tightened ahead of the funeral at Jerusalem's Mount Herzl on Friday, with authorities having already increased deployments ahead of the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in October.

Tributes flowed in as soon as Peres's death was announced by his family, who praised his tireless work ethic and what they called his devotion to peace.

"He had no interest other than serving the people of Israel," said his son Chemi, his eyes moist as he read a letter on behalf of the family at the hospital in a suburb of Tel Aviv where Peres died.

Bill Clinton, who helped usher in the Oslo peace accords when he was US president, said: "The Middle East has lost a fervent advocate for peace and reconciliation.

Pope Francis said he was "deeply saddened" and UN chief Ban Ki-moon hailed Peres for working "tirelessly for a two-state solution".

However, a spokesman for Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement that runs the Gaza Strip, welcomed his death and called him a "criminal", though Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas described Peres as "brave".

While many lauded Peres as a peacemaker, Palestinians tend to view him differently, citing his involvement in successive Arab-Israeli wars and the occupation of Palestinian territory.

He was also prime minister in 1996 when more than 100 civilians were killed while sheltering at a UN peacekeepers' base in the Lebanese village of Qana fired upon by Israel.

Peres, who was hospitalised twice because of heart trouble In January, had been in hospital since September 13, when he suffered a stroke and internal bleeding.

There were signs of improvement last week, but on Tuesday he took a turn for the worse and his family arrived to be by his bedside.

In later years, he had sought to maintain an active schedule, despite his age.

When leaving hospital in January, he said "I'm so happy to return to work, that was the whole purpose of this operation".

Born in Poland in 1923, Peres emigrated to what was then British-mandated Palestine when he was 11.

He joined the Zionist struggle and met David Ben-Gurion, who would become his mentor and Israel's first prime minister.

Peres became director general of the nascent defence ministry at just 29.

He was also seen as a driving force in the development of Israel's undeclared nuclear programme in the 1950s.

The country is now considered the Middle East's sole nuclear-armed nation, but Israel has never publicly acknowledged it.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described Peres "as a champion of Israel's defence" who "strengthened its capacities in many ways, some of them still unacknowledged to this day".

Despite his reputation as a statesman, he never managed to outright win a national election. Many in Israel opposed to the Oslo accords also blamed him for what they saw as their failure.

But in later life, especially during his time as president, he came to be widely embraced.

He once said that the secret to his longevity was daily exercise, eating little and drinking one or two glasses of good wine.