Official Washington’s weeklong feting of Israeli President Shimon Peres reached its zenith at the White House on Wednesday night when US President Barack Obama presented the 88 year-old statesman with American’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“No individual has done so much over so many years to build our alliance and bring our two nations closer as the leader we honor tonight, our friend, Shimon Peres,” said President Obama. “In him, we see the essence of Israel itself — an indomitable spirit that will not be denied.”
More than 140 people attended the ceremony, including former US President Bill Clinton, former US Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, diplomatic and defense officials from both countries, members of the extended Peres family, and late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s daughter, Dalia.
President Obama lauded Peres for his commitment to peace, but said, “Shimon knows that a nation’s security depends, not just on the strength of its arms, but upon the righteousness of its deeds — its moral compass.” He added:
“He knows, as Scripture teaches, that we must not only seek peace, we must pursue it. And so it has been the cause of his life — peace, security and dignity, for Israelis and Palestinians and all Israel’s Arab neighbors.
And it’s why I’ve worked with Prime Minister (Benjamin) Netanyahu to ensure that the security cooperation between the United States and Israel is closer and stronger than it has ever been. Because the security of the State of Israel is non-negotiable. And the bonds between us are unbreakable.”
Peres thanked Obama for the honor, calling him “a great leader and genuine friend.” He said he accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom on behalf of the People of Israel.
“They are the true recipients of this honor. With this moving gesture, you are paying tribute to generations upon generations of Jews who dreamed of, and fought for, a state of their own. A state that would give them shelter. A state that they could defend.
Mr. President, you are honoring the pioneers who built homes on barren mountains, on shifting sands. Fighters who sacrificed their lives for their country. On their behalf, I thank America for days of concern, for sleepless nights, caring for our safety, for our future.”
Peres also took the opportunity to warn about the dangers of Iran’s nuclear program — calling the regime in Tehran “a danger to world peace” – and stressed the urgency of solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“The Palestinians are our closest neighbors. I believe they may become our closest friends. Peace with the Palestinians will open ports of peace all around the Mediterranean,” he said.
He closed with a stirringly optimistic vision of the future of Israel and its neighbors:
“My vision is an Israel whose moral call is old as the Ten Commandments tablets and whose imagination is as new as a digital tablet. Together, our ancient and modern vision can help bring Tikkun Olam. I believe that in the coming decade, Israel will be a center of the latest developments in brain research.
As the secrets of the human brain are revealed, people may improve their capacity to choose between right and wrong. In the absence of global government, the ability to govern ourselves can contribute to world peace.
My greatest hope is that a dawn will rise where every man and woman, Israeli or Palestinian, Syrian or Lebanese, young people, wherever they are, will wake up and be able to say to themselves:
‘I am free to be free.’”
On Thursday morning, Prime Minister Netanyahu congratulated Peres, saying Prime Minister Netanyahu told President Peres tell him that he joins “a small and distinguished list. You are worthy of the Medal and it is worthy of you. I think that this is a great honor for the State of Israel as well.” The president replied, “Thank you for your dear and heartfelt words. Thank you from my heart.”
Neither leader mentioned convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, despite the appeal for clemency that Peres made to Obama this week.
Earlier in the day, White House spokesman Jay Carney disabused those hoping the occasion would lead to Pollard’s release, saying, “Our position has not changed and will not change today. Mr. Pollard was convicted of very serious crimes.”
Peres’ week in Washington began on Monday at the Pentagon, where the former Israeli Defense Minister was welcomed by a military honor guard. Peres held working meetings with US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, and top US military leaders.
On Tuesday, Peres and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held a wide-ranging discussion at a Brookings Institution event in which the Israeli leader said the Jewish state does not want to be Tehran’s enemy, but fears Iran’s nuclear program and its desire for Middle Eastern hegemony.
Clinton, for her part, made headlines by accusing Russia of supplying Syria with attack helicopters that “would escalate the conflict quite dramatically.” On Wednesday, Clinton called Russia’s denial of that allegation “patently untrue.”
Peres will wrap up his American trip on Thursday with a Washington A-list reception at the residence of Israeli Ambassador to the US, Michael Oren.
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