Obama honors Peres with Presidential Medal of Freedom
In moving White House ceremony, U.S. President Barack Obama says Israeli President Shimon Peres is "the essence of Israel itself — an indomitable spirit that will not be denied" • Peres tells Obama, "You stated that Israel's security is sacrosanct for you. So you pledged; so you act" • Peres asks Obama for release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard.
The Associated Press, Yoni Hirsch, Yori Yalon and Israel Hayom Staff
"Tonight, we have the rare privilege in history — and that's to be in the presence of a true Founding Father [of Israel]," U.S. President Barack Obama said of Peres at the White House ceremony, Wednesday.
Photo credit: AP
"With this moving gesture, you are paying, Mr. President, tribute to generations upon generations of Jews who fought for a state of their own," President Shimon Peres tells Obama during the ceremony.
Photo credit: AP
"A world without the United States would have been chaotic," President Shimon Peres (L) told U.S. President Barack Obama during their meeting at the White House, Wednesday.
Photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO
U.S. President Barack Obama presented Israeli President Shimon Peres with the Medal of Freedom on Wednesday, calling him the essence of Israel itself and a man who earned his place in history long ago.
"No individual has done so much over so many years to build our alliance and to bring our two nations closer as the leader that we honor tonight — our friend, Shimon Peres," Obama said at the opening of the presentation of the medal, the nation's highest civilian honor, to Peres.
"The man, the life, that we honor tonight is nothing short of extraordinary ... Shimon has been serving his nation, and strengthening the bonds between our two nations, for some 65 years, the entire life of the State of Israel. Ben-Gurion and Meir, Begin and Rabin — these giants of Israel’s founding generation now belong to the ages. But tonight, we have the rare privilege in history, and that's to be in the presence of a true founding father."
Citing Peres' many positions and contributions over the years, Obama said, "In him we see the essence of Israel itself — an indomitable spirit that will not be denied.”
"He has persevered, serving in virtually every position, in dozens of cabinets, some two dozen ministerial posts, defense minister, finance minister, foreign minister three times. Try that, Madeleine," Obama said in jest, referring to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who was a guest at the ceremony. "And now, the ninth president of Israel."
Obama said that Peres, who served twice as Israel's prime minister and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, knew the necessity of strength but also understood that a nation's security depended on the righteousness of its deeds.
"The security of the State of Israel is non-negotiable," Obama said. "And the bonds between us are unbreakable."
Just before presenting Peres with the medal, Obama said, "Shimon Peres — born in a shtetl in what was then Poland, who rose to become president of Israel — he is a dreamer. And rightly so. For he knows what we must never forget: With faith in ourselves and courage in our hearts, no dream is too big, no vision is beyond our reach ... And so it is a high honor for me to bestow [on] this statesman, this warrior for peace, America’s highest civilian honor — the Presidential Medal of Freedom."
Peres' Washington visit comes amid rising violence in Syria and worries in the U.S. and Israel about Iran's nuclear ambitions. Peres said the threat posed by Iran's leaders had to be stopped. But he said Israel supported Obama's efforts to pressure Iran, making a special point to note that Obama had declared that all options in dealing with Iran were on the table.
After receiving his award and taking the podium, Peres thanked Obama and said the Medal of Freedom was an honor not just for him, but for the State of Israel.
"I receive this honor today on behalf of the people of Israel,” he said. “They are the true recipients of this honor. With this moving gesture, you are paying, Mr. President, tribute to generations upon generations of Jews who dreamed of, fought for a state of their own — a state that would give them a shelter; a state that they could really defend by themselves."
Commenting on Obama's commitment to Israel's security, Peres said to the U.S. president, "You have pledged a lasting friendship for Israel. You stated that Israel's security is sacrosanct for you. So you pledged; so you act. So you are acting as a great leader, as a champion for peace."
Peres also took the opportunity to speak about mutual U.S. and Israeli concerns over the Iranian nuclear threat.
"The Iranian people are not our enemies,” Peres said. “It is the present leadership that became a threat. It turned Iran into a danger to world peace. It is a leadership that aims to rule the Middle East, spreading terror all over the world. They are trying to build a nuclear bomb. They bring darkness to a world longing for light. It is our responsibility to our own people, to our friends throughout the world, to posterity, that the Iranian threat must be stopped, and it cannot be delayed."
Peres told Obama that Israel supported U.S. policy on Iran, saying, "Mr. President, you worked so hard to build a world coalition to meet this immediate threat. You started, rightly, with economic sanctions. You made it clear — rightly, again — that all options are on the table."
The Israeli president also said the time was "ripe" for Israelis and Palestinians to restart the peace process.
"Friends, extremists are using the conflict of the Palestinians to cover their true ambitions," Peres said. "The majority of the people in the Middle East, in my judgment, are tired of war. In many homes, families still mourn the loss of their loved one. I believe that peace with the Palestinians is most urgent, more urgent than ever before. It is necessary. It is crucial. It is possible. A delay may worsen its chances."
Peres concluded his speech by saying, "Dear friends, my greatest hope is that a dawn will arise when every man and women — Israeli or Palestinian, Syrian or Lebanese, young people wherever they are — will wake up in the morning and be able to say to themselves, I am free to be free. Amen."
Ahead of the ceremony, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu phoned Peres to congratulate him on his honor. "Shimon, congratulations. You join a small and distinguished list. You are worthy of the medal and it is worthy of you," Netanyahu told Peres. "I think that this is a great honor for the State of Israel as well."
As well as Albright, among those attending the black-tie White House dinner in the East Room were Vice President Joe Biden, First Lady Michelle Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former President Bill Clinton, and some members of Congress, including Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, both veteran foreign policy specialists. Other distinguished guests included Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, and Dalia Rabin, the daughter of late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995, and to whom Peres referred in his speech as "my partner, the unforgettable Yitzhak Rabin, who gave his life for peace."
After the dinner, the more than 80 guests were entertained by violinist Itzhak Perlman, who opened with Fritz Kreisler's "Tempo di Minuetto.”