At 88, after 65 years in politics, it seems that the veteran statesman Shimon Peres won't be excited about yet another award bestowed upon him - but Wednesday night at the East room of the White House the Israeli President had a shy smile on his face, looking at the faces of the U.S. and Israeli officials that gathered around the tables decorated with tall white candles, to honor him - as if hardly believing Senya Persky from Wiszniewo shtetl, really got there.
There were Vice President Joe Biden sitting next to the Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who entered with her husband, the former President Bill Clinton, a bit late - sitting next to the Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren. There were Peres' three children: Zvia, Chemi and Jonathan - who came with Dalia Rabin-Pelossof, daughter of late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro came. So did former Middle East envoy George Mitchell and Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fisher. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright gently applauded. Later on, she sat at the same table with Peres, President Obama and his wife, and Haim Saban with his wife Cheryl.
There is a big age difference between the two Presidents - but the relationship between them seems easy - before President Peres' remarks, President Obama fixed his microphone. Probably well aware of Peres' ups and downs in Israeli politics, President Obama tagged him as "the ultimate comeback."
Obama said Peres ran for president and won when he was 83, adding that he "asked for all his tips."
“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," Obama said in his speech before he presented Peres with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civic award in the U.S.. :"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.”
“In him we see the essence of Israel itself," Obama said of Peres. "an indomitable spirit that will not be denied.”
"To receive it is an honor. And to receive it from you, Mr. President, is a privilege that I shall cherish forever," Peres said after receiving the medal. "It is a testament to the historic friendship between our two nations. 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. 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 receives Medal of Freedom from Obama at White House ceremony
"Palestinian-Israeli agreement 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. A solution of two national states: A Jewish state – Israel. An Arab state – Palestine," Peres said.
"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,'" Peres exclaimed.
Obama made some cracks at Peres' advanced age. He commented "he’s still going -- on Facebook, on You Tube -- connecting with young people; looking to new technologies, always 'facing tomorrow.' Recently, he was asked, 'What do you want your legacy to be?"' And Shimon replied, 'Well, it’s too early for me to think about it.'"
Peres was accompanied to the ceremony by his three children – Tzvia, Yonatan and Chemi, along with their families, as well as Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran, author Tzroya Shalev, Maj. Gen. Doron Almog and his wife, Professor Manuel Trajtenberg and Dalia Rabin, among others. After the dinner, the Israelis continued their festivities at the Blair House.
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