WASHINGTON (JWN and agencies)—Israel’s President Shimon Peres on Wednesday night accepted the Medal of Freedom from US President Barack Obama, saying that he did so on behalf of all Israelis.
The poignant White House ceremony was a unique event. While Peres is the second Israeli to receive America’s highest civilian honor—after president George W. Bush awarded former Prisoner of Zion Natan Sharansky the medal for his vigorous defense of democracy—he was the first Nobel laureate to be awarded the prize by a fellow Nobel laureate.
“I receive this honor today on behalf of the people of Israel. They are the true recipients of this honor,” Peres told Obama upon receiving the award. “With this moving gesture, you are paying tribute to generations upon generations of Jews who dreamed of, fought for, a state of their own.”
In his acceptance speech, Peres reviewed the Jewish state’s history from its emergence after the Holocaust and surviving numerous wars to become a world leader in technology. He also warned of the threat of a nuclear Iran, which has announced its determination to annihilate Israel.
“We have a solemn responsibility to our own people, to our friends throughout the world, to posterity,” Peres declared. The Iranian threat must be stopped. It cannot be delayed.”
Peres praised Obama for his determined efforts to build an international coalition of sanctions against the Iranian threat, as well as to keep open the option of military action. He also reiterated Israel’s support for a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians and urged both sides to resume negotiations.
Obama introduced Peres as one “who has done more for the cause of peace in the Middle East than just about anybody alive” and stressed the importance of the special US-Israel bilateral relationship.
“One of our strongest allies, and one of our closest friends, is the State of Israel,” Obama said. “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 praised Peres for his long history in safeguarding Israel’s defense as a minister and prime minister, noting that a country is better able to make peace from a position of strength.
“It’s why I’ve worked with Prime Minister Netanyahu to ensure that the security cooperation between the United States and Israel is closer and stronger than it has ever been,” Obama said. “Because the security of the State of Israel is non-negotiable. And the bonds between us are unbreakable.”
Above all, Obama praised Peres for his pursuit of peace: “It has been the cause of his life—peace, security, and dignity, for Israelis and Palestinians and all of Israel’s Arab neighbors.”
Peres responded, “I believe that peace with the Palestinians is more urgent than ever before. It is necessary. It is crucial. It is possible. A delay may worsen its chances. Israel and the Palestinians are ripe today to restart. A firm basis already exists.”
With characteristic optimism, Peres added, “The Palestinians are our closest neighbors. I believe they may become our closest friends.”
The one dark side of Peres’s US visit was his apparent failure to persuade Obama to commute the sentence of Israeli agent Jonathan Pollard, who has served 26 years of a life sentence for transferring documents on the then Iraqi threat to Israel.
Peres’s diplomatic adviser, Nadav Tamir, told Army Radio on Thursday morning somewhat cryptically that Obama’s answer “was not a decisive no.”
“If people are expecting Pollard to return home now with Peres on a plane, that won’t happen, but the door hasn’t been slammed,” Tamir said.
Speaking to Channel 2 from Washington, Peres cautioned that he does not want to raise expectations. “I feel like not only a humanitarian emissary on the Pollard issue, but also as an emissary of the will of the nation,” Peres said.
“I will do my best,” he added. “I am afraid of raising expectations and disappointment.”