William Jefferson Clinton, the 42nd president of the United States, is known to
be an emotional human being. Thus, when President Shimon Peres conferred
the Presidential Medal of Distinction on him Wednesday, there was certainly a
lump in the former president’s throat when he voiced his
Peres presented Clinton the award in recognition of what he
has done for humanity at large, but more specifically for his “unwavering
commitment to the Jewish people” and “moving support for the State of
Soon after Clinton’s arrival in Israel on Monday evening, he
spoke at the Peres Academic Center in Rehovot and said that ever since he and
his wife first visited in 1981, he had loved coming to Israel and always felt at
On that evening and on subsequent occasions this week Peres
spoke warmly of Clinton’s great leadership abilities and of how popular he is in
Clinton received an exuberant reception from thousands in the
audience at the Jerusalem International Convention Center when he entered the
auditorium on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.
The former president
received a sustained standing ovation after his orations at the opening of the
fifth Facing Tomorrow Conference, and again in response to being awarded the
Medal of Distinction.
Clinton said he was grateful to receive the award
not only because he was aware of those who had received it before him, “but
because it comes from Shimon Peres, who is my personal friend and a global
Clinton said that the search for peace and reconciliation and
a shared future does not fit easily into the flow of life, but observed that
Peres gets up every day and thinks about tomorrow, referring to the past only
when it is relevant.
In his own address, prior to conferring the medal on
Clinton, Peres, in a reference to the Clinton Global Initiative, said that it
“reminds us that one man can inspire an entire generation to change lives for
Clinton had mobilized troops of goodwill and encouraged
aspirations in a visionary and imaginative way, said Peres.
us what we call in Hebrew tikun olam, which means making the world a better
Clinton also spoke of tikun olam, using the Hebrew terminology
throughout his address. Tikun olam is to repair the breach – “a good and
constant responsibility we all have,” he said.
“There is a constant
struggle to redefine those to whom we feel the obligation of tikun olam,” he
said, noting that today we live in an interdependent world at a time when old
barriers are being torn down and new ones erected.
admitted that he’d made many mistakes, one of the worst was being so obsessed
about Bosnia and trying to stop the slaughter there that he did nothing to prevent the
genocide in Rwanda.
The mass killing in Rwanda took place so quickly that
there was not even a meeting at the White House to discuss how to stop it, he
Later, he publicly apologized to Rwanda and launched a series of
projects to help its people.
Clinton paid tribute to Rwandan President
Paul Kagame, who was sitting in the audience, and who like Peres, he said, is a
person whose motto is not to give up, not to give in but to go on.
illustrate this point, Clinton related an anecdote about a journalist who had
traveled to Rwanda with him and who had asked a taxi driver whether he resented
Clinton’s presence in his country. The taxi driver replied that he was happy
that Clinton had come and apologized, because no one else had done so, and said
that Clinton was at least trying to do something for the Rwandan people, and
that this was something that they appreciated and would not reject.
was a very telling insight into positive change, said Clinton.
step in building a new tomorrow is getting rid of the things that divide us,”
declared Clinton, who was referring both to Rwanda and to the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as to the “us and them”
It was essential to expand the definition of us and shrink the
definition of them so that people of different faiths, backgrounds and
ideologies could live together in harmony, he said.
“If you’re compelled
to share the future, you have to define what the future will be,” he
Inasmuch as there are “no final victories in tikun olam,” just as
there are “no perfect warriors of peace,” Clinton insisted that people must keep
trying and not give up.
“If we mess up, we have to get up and go on,” he
said, citing Rwanda as a prime example of pushing forward and letting go of the
past to be able to move freely toward a better future.
A great part of
tikun olam in Clinton’s perception is to be aware of other people. He cited the
frequency with which people in service industries are part of the great unseen,
and said that in Rwanda when someone says, “Good morning, how are you?” one
doesn’t reply “Fine, how are you?” The correct response is: “I see
Clinton said that one of the attributes of Peres is that he “tries
to see everyone.”
In extolling Clinton’s virtues, Peres cited his unique
ability to connect with people on a personal level, and said that the
combination of Clinton’s intellectual and emotional intelligence had made him
the most beloved leader on earth.
Peres spoke admiringly of Clinton’s
empathy, which he said crossed divides and borders, and hailed him as “the first
leader in the era of globalization.”
With regard to the Middle East,
Peres lauded Clinton for investing “great wisdom, boundless energy and skill to
promote peace between us and our neighbors.”
Underscoring that Clinton
had presided over the signing of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty in 1994,
Peres said: “Your work laid the foundations which will one day bring peace to
our region – the two-states solution. You trailblazed the way to that desired
destination; and although the work is not yet complete, the future will hang
upon your immeasurable contribution.”
Peres praised Clinton’s wife,
former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who did not come to Israel this
time, and said that they had both been great friends of Israel every step of the
“Both of you have shown unmatched friendship to my country in times
of need and occasions of hope,” said Peres, who described Clinton as “an amazing
story of a selfless young man who became a leader – a youngster from Arkansas
who matured into a leader of the world.”
Clinton had become a leader of
humanity by inspiring, not imposing, said Peres. “You became a servant of
humanity without ruling. You are the American dream that became a hope for the
In conferring the Presidential Medal, Israel’s highest civilian
honor, Peres said that this was a modest gesture on the part of his country and
his people to thank Clinton for his support, his care and his
The conferment ceremony was preceded by a plenary session on
leadership that makes a difference, with Quartet envoy Tony Blair and Chicago
Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Blair said that the skill set that takes you to
leadership is not necessarily that which serves you as a leader.
definition of leadership is taking responsibility that others might shirk,
stepping in instead of stepping out and being able to take
Since leaving office, he said, he had found it a lot easier to
give advice than to take decisions.
“As a leader, the only recourse is to
do what you believe in, even if it’s unpopular,” he said.
challenge of leadership is to educate young people to have an open mind toward
people other than themselves, said Blair.
Turning to choices that Western
leaders have to make in the Middle East, Blair cited the dilemmas of whether to
intervene in Syria and whether to cooperate with the Muslim Brotherhood. He said
this was “an era of low predictability,” with “uncertainty, instability and
Blair said that “in Tehran they have to know that we will
vigorously uphold our principles. A nuclear-armed Iran is the worst
choice, and we shouldn’t make it,” he said, adding that Israel’s security is the
security of the whole of the Western world.”
“A leader must convey three
things: strength, confidence and optimism,” said Emanuel.
failure so long as one learns from it, Emanuel said that one of the things that
he had impressed on President Barack Obama was to never allow a good crisis to
go to waste.
“It provides opportunities to do things you never thought
possible,” said Emanuel, citing the turnaround in America’s automobile
“All of us have setbacks, but to appreciate the peaks, you have
to pick yourself up from the valleys,” he said.
He considered it vital
for leaders to determine their goals.
“Too often leaders confuse their
means with what their ends are,” he said.
Emanuel said that there is too
much focus on the process of peace rather than on the benefits of
Peres said that leaders must understand the changes taking place
in the world.
“We have a new world with an old mind,” he said. It was
important to stop fighting over differences and to legitimize those differences,
He reiterated one of his favorite philosophies, that leaders
are the servants of the people and must enhance the capacity of the people to
express their concerns.
“People want to be heard and respected,” Peres
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