It was Bill Clinton who stole the show last night at the Mann Auditorium. The waves of love that lapped around him were almost palpable. But it was his predecessor, George Bush Sr., who in his recorded message of congratulations to Shimon Peres encapsulated the significance of the evening.

"We do it," Bush said of himself and the dozens of other world figures who attended personally or sent greetings to Peres, "because we know what he stands for."

Peres, for those in the world that wish Israel well, and for the thousands of his own friends and well-wishers who thronged the hall last night, stands for peace. And the fact that he failed to attain it, and that it seems so far off now, added to the poignancy of the moment.

"You are a light unto the nations," Clinton told him, homing in to the heart of our national discomfort. "In hard times it's so easy to give in to despair - so hard to think about tomorrow."

Almost everyone seemed to cry at some point during the emotion-filled evening. The wide-eyed little Ethiopian boy sitting on Peres' lap in a huge photograph drew a smile and a sigh. When the same face - now atop the uniform of an IDF officer - smiled down from the stage and wished Peres happy birthday, people choked up. When a young Russian immigrant, badly wounded in the Dolphinarium bombing, urged Peres to keep on fighting for peace, the tears flowed freely.

But it wasn't just these scenes that brought on the sadness. Rather, it was the haunting sense that the celebration of Peres' longevity was also, inevitably, the marking of his inability, despite his now-waning years of trying, to make the longed-for breakthrough. It was almost an admission of Israel's inability to reach peace. After all, Mr. Peace himself, for all his indefatigable efforts, could not deliver it.

In this spirit, perhaps a bit maudlin but nonetheless authentic, Ariel Sharon won his warmest applause when he suggested, at the end of a warm and generous speech, that the two of them, old friends for half a century, could get together again to work for those two desperately elusive goals - peace and security.

Clinton, suddenly serious and focused in a speech full of humanity and humor, recalled that the new Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, and Shimon Peres had together crafted a peace plan before. That plan was still workable, Clinton urged. "A few miles from here there are Palestinians living who are not so different from you, who hate terror as you do, who are afraid too, who are exhausted too." A partnership between Israelis and Palestinians, he added, "could turn the whole world away from the wretched curse of terror."

It was a motley assortment of past and present statesmen - more past, in fact, than present - that took the trouble to come to Tel Aviv to pay Peres homage. Peres pointed to the special common denominator that bound together the most prominent among them. "These are world leaders who made history," he said. He was referring to Gorbachev, to de Klerk, to David Trimble - men who changed the flow of events in their own countries. Peres sees himself as one of them. His admirers, here and abroad, also see him as a rightful member of that select company. But those same admirers know - and hence the tinge of sadness in yesterday's proceedings - that the history Peres sought to make is yet unmade.