President Shimon Peres on Wednesday conferred on former US president Bill Clinton the Presidential Medal of Distinction, Israel’s highest civilian honor.
“When I call you my friend I know that I speak for the entire people of Israel,” Peres said at a ceremony in Jerusalem during the Presidential Conference. “Your unwavering commitment to the Jewish people and your moving support for the State of Israel will always be cherished by each and every one of us.”
Peres praised Clinton’s activities both in and out of office, noting that he was “the first leader in the era of globalization” who created “win-win situations” for people around the world, from “Northern Ireland to the Balkans, and from Africa to the Middle East.”
Praising the accomplishments of the Clinton Foundation, which Clinton founded after leaving office, Peres said, “You are tempting me into retirement.”
“You invested great wisdom, boundless energy and skill to promote peace between us and our neighbors,” Peres continued. “You presided over the signing of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty. Your work laid the foundations which will one day bring peace to our region – the two-state solution.”
Clinton represents “the American dream that became a hope for the world. It is my privilege to confer upon you today the highest honor of Israel… Through this modest gesture, the entirety of my country and my people thank you for your support, for your care, for your friendship,” Peres concluded.
In his acceptance speech, Clinton thanked Peres, calling him “my personal friend and a global treasure.”
Going over his allotted time, Clinton spoke about the search for peace and economic stability in the modern, interconnected world. All of human history revolved around the constant redefinition of who is “us” and who “them,” he said.
Working for peace, reconciliation and a shared future, he said, is “a way of life… That’s why Shimon Peres has survived 90 years. He gets up every day… and focuses on yesterday only as it will help today.”
Clinton spoke extensively about the humanitarian situation in Rwanda, where the Clinton Foundation has been very active. Recalling his insufficient efforts while in office to stop the Rwandan genocide and the process of reconciliation that occurred in that country later, he called on Israelis and Palestinians to look past their differences and arrive at a peace agreement.
He said his neglect of the situation in Rwanda during his presidency was “his greatest mistake,” and that during subsequent visits to the region, he learned that “when you are compelled to share a future [with another group], you have to decide what that sharing will be, and if the terms favor you too much, and the other not, then there will always be us and them… there will always be the scales out of balance.”
Clinton said world leaders were well advised to tell their people that “no matter what anybody has done to us, no matter what we have done to each other, the first step of building a new tomorrow is to get rid of the things that divide us, including seeing ourselves as victims. We have to claim the future that we make.”
Israel, known as the “start-up nation,” he said, is seen as a safe place for Jews to learn that they need no longer be victims.
“Between Israelis and Palestinians there are many reasons for continuing distrust,” he said, adding that Israelis could see many reasons for maintaining the status quo as opposed to making bold moves to try to achieve a peace agreement.
“There is no perfect answer to any of this. There is simply the perfect obligation to continue to expand the definition of ‘us’ and to shrink the definition of ‘them.’ I ask you to think about that,” Clinton said in closing.
Clinton was given the prize, because, according to the award committee, he is “one of the greatest friends known to Israel and the Jewish people,” and during his terms in the White House was “always committed to Israel and its security.”
The committee also said Clinton was “among the most popular American presidents in Israel.”
According to the President’s Residence, the award is comparable to the French Legion of Honor and the Order of Canada.
The medal, which features the North Star — “to symbolize the right path” — and a menorah, is given to individuals and organizations “that have made unique and outstanding contributions to tikkun olam (bettering the world), Israeli society and the State of Israel’s image around the world, and which constitute examples of initiative, innovation, creativity and vision,” according to the President’s Residence.
Previous laureates include US President Barack Obama, former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger; Zubin Mehta, the music director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra; attorney Uri Slonim; Judy Feld Carr; the Rashi Foundation; and Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz.
The advisory committee for the Presidential Medal of Distinction includes retired Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar, former president Yitzhak Navon, Professor Suzie Navot, Dr. Mohammed Issawi, Rabbi Ratzon Arusi, Gil Shwed and Professor Anita Shapira.