Israel starts celebrations for Shimon Peres's 90th

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Former US President Bill Clinton (l) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (r) joined the celebrations

Israel's President Shimon Peres has begun celebrations for his upcoming 90th birthday in the company of celebrities and world leaders.

British former Prime Minister Tony Blair and US ex-President Bill Clinton were among guests at Jerusalem's convention centre late on Tuesday.

Singer Barbra Streisand performed, with actors Robert De Niro and Sharon Stone also in attendance.

A series of events are planned ahead of Mr Peres's birthday in August.

Tuesday's gala marked the start of Israel's annual presidential conference, an event that is funded by individuals and foundations at a cost $3m (£1.9m).

Some 5,000 people are expected to take part in two days of discussions on the theme of "Facing Tomorrow".

The VIP guest list for the opening party showed the high international esteem in which Mr Peres is held.

'Light and hope'

Opening his speech, Mr Blair, now a special envoy to the Middle East, said: "We in Britain have our Queen, you have your Shimon" before going on to praise the president's leadership qualities.

US President Barack Obama, who was in Northern Ireland for a G8 summit, sent a pre-recorded message expressing his birthday wishes to Mr Peres "on behalf of the American people".

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also sent a tribute, as did German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

When President Peres took to the podium, he called for an end to the conflict in the Middle East.

"We want peace with our neighbours," he said. "The yesterday between us and the Palestinians is full of sorrow."

"I believe that the Israel of tomorrow and the Palestine of tomorrow can give our children light and hope."

The political career of Polish-born Mr Peres spans six decades. He has served twice as prime minister of Israel.

He is credited with starting the country's nuclear programme and was closely involved with the early creation of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

He went on to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

In 1994, a year after the signing of the Oslo Accords, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with Israel's then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Although he was not popular during much of his political career, Israelis have built up a deep affection for him that has been widely expressed during nearly six years as Israel's president.

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