President Shimon Peres was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on Thursday, one of the highest civilian awards in the United States, for his contribution to the strengthening of relations between Israel and the US, and for his efforts to achieve peace with the Jewish state’s neighbors.
In his speech (full text here), he called for the resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians and said that the entire Middle East could become a “start-up region” teeming with initiative and innovation. “To make that happen, leaders in the region must do their share to open their societies. Because without free thinking there is no new thinking. And without openness there are no discoveries,” he said.
With the award, Peres becomes one of only nine people to win both the congressional and presidential medals.
In a special ceremony at the Capitol in Washington during his last trip to the United States as president, Peres was praised by leading members of both the Senate and the House of Representatives.
“You have been an inspiration for all of us, young and old,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said at the ceremony.
House Speaker John Boehner presented the medal to the Israeli President, who is 90 and whose term ends in July.
“You are truly a force of nature, Mr. President,” US Vice President Joe Biden said. “You are a national treasure to Israel, but also, I would suggest, you are a national treasure to the United States as well.”
After receiving the prestigious award, Peres went on to address Congress, expressing his gratitude.
“I am humbled to stand here today in this Rotunda, in this great Pantheon of Democracy, the Congress of the United States,” the president said.
‘Many people call me a dreamer… That’s why I have always felt at home here in America. America that was given the privilege to carry the dreams of humanity’
“Here, you give expression to the unbreakable spirit of the American people.
“It was first expressed 237 years ago when your forefathers signed a document whose words will echo for all time. Among these rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” he said. “Those words resonate with as much meaning today, as they did when America’s first patriots wrote them. They have inspired generations of Americans to dream of a better America. And they have inspired peoples across the globe to dream for a better world.
“Many people call me a dreamer,” he continued. “I suppose that’s why I have always felt at home here in America. America that was given the privilege to carry the dreams of humanity. My own first dream was to be a shepherd on a kibbutz. This dream came true. At dawn, I watched the sheep in order not to lose one. At night, I watched the stars in order not to miss one.”
Peres urged Congress members to assist in raising awareness for the three Israeli teenagers who were kidnapped in the West Bank two weeks ago, and said the US must stand beside Israel in its fight against terror.
“Israel has shown it can defend itself against those who sought our destruction. Israel did and will do, everything in our power to bring home our three kidnapped boys – Naftali, Gilad, and Eyal. I met with their parents, their mothers. They asked me to speak here on their behalf. To make your voices heard all over the world to help bring our boys home. To sound a call across the world against terror. Let’s raise our voices together against terrorism.”
The president stressed that the peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority can be renewed. He reiterated comments made earlier this week in which he said that Abbas was a “real partner” for peace, but emphasized that Hamas, a partner in the technocratic unity government, was a terror organization.
“Peace between Israel and Palestine can forge a broader regional peace,” he said. “A bridge should be built to enable an Israeli peace initiative to meet the Arab peace initiative. I have lived long enough to see the impossible become possible. To skeptics, I can say: Believe me. Peace is the most possible impossibility.”
Peres said that, on the regional level, just like Israel was viewed as a “start-up nation,” the Middle East could become a “start-up region.”
“Israel has little land, even less water and no oil,” he said. “But we became a start-up nation through hi-tech and hard work. I learned that the turmoil of today can provide a new hope for tomorrow. And my dream today is that the Middle East will become a start-up region. To make that happen, leaders in the region must do their share to open their societies.”