WASHINGTON – President Shimon Peres, a man of many titles and recipient of hundreds of awards and accolades, received yet another under the rotunda of the United States Capitol on Thursday, accepting the Congressional Gold Medal, the legislature’s highest honor.
Peres immediately joined an especially elite group of only three others who have won the Congressional Gold Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Nobel Peace Prize: Aung San Suu Kyi, Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela.
In his acceptance speech – carefully crafted by the outgoing president himself – he stayed in character as the rare optimist on matters of pressing concern to the Middle East. He called peace between Israel and the Palestinians “the most possible impossibility” and noted that through seven wars, Israel had defied stacked odds “time and again.”
And yet, capping over six -and-a-half eventful decades of public service, Peres also reflected on dramatic shifts in the dynamics of international security and the threats facing both Israel and the United States.
“The artificial structure in the Middle East, built by previous empires, is now falling apart,” Peres told the hall, packed with members of Congress. “The rules governing the world are being rewritten. Security and prosperity are no longer mainly national issues.”
On the matter of newfound Palestinian unity between Fatah and Hamas, Peres said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is “clearly a partner for peace” with Israel, noting the PA leader spoke out – in Arabic and in Saudi Arabia, of all places – against the kidnapping of the three teenage boys earlier this month, still missing and presumed held in the West Bank.
“The Arabs are not Israel’s enemies. The terrorists are the enemies of both of us,” Peres said. “Terrorists spread danger over the entire region. The region must come together to stop them.”
He made only a brief mention of Iran, commending US President Barack Obama for his commitment to preventing the Islamic Republic from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. Israel, too, seeks a peaceful solution to the crisis, he said.
The speech, on the whole, was reflective of a long public life broken into segments on regional security, national modernization efforts and the historical relationship between Washington and Jerusalem.
Introducing Peres, Vice President Joe Biden called him a “force of nature” and a “national treasure” to the US.
“I have never met a person with greater eloquence, nor possessed of more wisdom than you,” Biden told him. “If it’s anything the world needs right now, it’s more men and women with wisdom.”
President of Israel for one more month, Peres spent Wednesday and Thursday on a farewell tour of Washington on his last official trip. He was greeted by no fewer than three Supreme Court justices, half of Congress, top-ranking diplomats, cabinet members, national security staff and the US president.
After nearly three hours of meetings at the White House with Obama on Wednesday, including a private Oval Office conversation, security briefings and a roundtable with Jewish community leaders, Peres attended a dinner held in his honor at the Israeli Embassy, attended by an extraordinary list of dignitaries.
From Justice Antonin Scalia to UN Ambassador Samantha Power, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Caroline) to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California), senior administration officials, prominent Washington journalists and familiar faces on Capitol Hill, it was unique for being held away from the typical settings for such events and crowds, taking place neither on the White House South Lawn nor in one of the city’s major hotels.
In remarks at the dinner, National Security Adviser Susan Rice thanked Peres “for your tireless efforts to make this world a better place – for your tireless commitment to the State of Israel and tikkun olam,” using the Hebrew term for repairing the world, a hallmark of Judaism.
“Mr. President, you set an example for us all,” she added. “And so, we too will stay true to the cause of peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Because ultimately, the only path out of this tragic conflict is a secure, democratic, Jewish state living side-by-side in peace and security with a viable, independent Palestinian state.”
Rice also took the opportunity to recognize the “agonizing vigil” Israel has undergone as the country awaits the return of the three missing yeshiva students, Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrah and Gil-Ad Shaer.
“We have offered every assistance and, as parents – in my case of a 16-year old boy – we all feel this very personally. So we pray for their safe return and for the strength for their families through this agonizing vigil.
And, continued cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians is also critical – both to ensure that the search succeeds and to prevent the situation in the West Bank from further destabilizing.”
In addition, Rice thanked Peres on a personal level for guidance during difficult moments of her career in public life.
Also at the dinner, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer noted the historic list of figures of which Peres was now part.
“I suppose the highest compliment one can pay to someone is that they think young,” Dermer said. “President Peres couples the vast experience and wisdom that comes with age with the curiosity and creativity of youth.”
Peres also met with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel at the Willard Hotel before departing Washington for New York to spend the weekend.
Concluding his Thursday speech on Capitol Hill, Peres made a poignant request to those present.
“Looking back on the life of Israel, our dreams proved not to be too big but too small, because Israel achieved much more than I could have ever imagined,” Peres said. “I ask only one thing of the United States of America, this mighty nation of dreamers: Don’t dream small. You are great. So dream big.”