U.S. President Barack Obama praised President Shimon Peres Wednesday as the “essence of Israel itself” as he awarded the Israeli statesman the highest civilian award the United States government can bestow upon an individual.
Obama hosted a dinner for Peres, attended by guests including former president Bill Clinton, in a show of respect and affection for the president that reflects close U.S.-Israeli relations.
“The United States is fortunate to have many allies and partners around the world. Of course, one of our strongest allies, and one of our closest friends, is the State of Israel.
“And 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,” Obama said before awarding Peres the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“In him we see the essence of Israel itself -- an indomitable spirit that will not be denied,” Obama said, praising Peres for a political career that spanned “the entire life” of the state of Israel.
Dubbing Peres the “ultimate comeback kid,” Obama marveled at his guest’s frequent reinventions over decades in turbulent Israeli politics and told Peres he had earned his place in history long ago.
“Shimon teaches us to never settle for the world as it is, we have a vision of the world as it ought to be and we have to strive for it.”
Obama lauded Peres, 88, for working with every American president since John F. Kennedy in the 1960s, and said that the “bonds” between the United States and Israel were “unbreakable” and “non-negotiable.”
The U.S. president welcomed Peres to the White House at a time when U.S. officials hope to deter Israel from making a unilateral strike against Iran’s nuclear program.
Peres, despite tension between the Obama administration and the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told the U.S. president that Israel supported his effort to reverse Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
“The Iranian people are not our enemies, it is the present leadership that became a threat. It turned Iran into a danger to world peace,” Peres said.
“It is a leadership that aims to rule the Middle East, spreading terror ... they are trying to build a nuclear bomb.
“They bring darkness to a world longing for light,” Peres said before a formal dinner in the ornate East Room of the White House.
Peres also said that he accepted the Medal of Freedom on behalf of the people of Israel and also paid tribute to his slain partner, former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995.
Accepting the award, Peres said he was profoundly moved by the honor, adding that it was “a testament to the historic friendship” between Israel and the U.S.
“I receive this honor today 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.
“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 said.
“Mr. President, You have pledged a lasting friendship for Israel. You stated that Israel’s security is ‘sacrosanct. So you pledged. So you acted. As a great leader, as a genuine friend.
“Israel admires the United States, for being a land of the free, a home of the brave, a nation of generosity. A world without the United States and her values would have been chaotic.
“My vision is an Israel living in full, genuine peace, joining with all the people of the Middle East, former enemies and new friends alike, with Jerusalem becoming the capital of peace,” Peres continued.
“Dear friends, 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. Amen.”
Obama’s appearance has come less than five months before November’s U.S. presidential election and amid speculation that Obama will fail to emulate the dominant position among Jewish voters that Democrats normally enjoy.
Republicans charged that Obama has let down Israel by publicly disagreeing with Netanyahu over peace talks with Palestinians, for instance, but the White House insists Obama has strengthened the alliance
“You have pledged a lasting friendship for Israel,” Peres told Obama. “So you pledged, so you act, so you are acting.”