WASHINGTON – After hanging the Presidential Medal of Freedom around President
Shimon Peres’s neck, US President Barack Obama returned to his seat at the head
table of the banquet he was throwing to fete Peres Wednesday, only to realize he
had neglected something.
The microphone at which Obama had delivered his
welcoming remarks was raised too high for the shorter 88-year-old statesman to
be heard, so Obama jumped back up and adjusted the microphone himself.
was a personal touch in an evening of personal embraces to honor one of Israel’s
longest-living founding fathers, one whose dogged dedication to peace between
Israelis and Palestinians sits comfortably with Obama’s own approach to the
region in a way that other Israeli political leaders’ visions haven’t
Both men spoke of the urgency and opportunity for peace, and
Peres’s words were underscored by the presence not only of Obama, his wife,
Michelle, Vice President Joe Biden and other key administration figures, but the
participation of an older guard of American White House residents who labored
intensively with Peres and his political partner Yitzhak Rabin for a two-state
solution: Bill and Hillary Clinton.
“I remember that 19 years ago, on the
lawn outside this house, president Clinton – dear, Bill – initiated the peace
Thank you very much,” Peres said into the adjusted
“Since then, the Israelis and Palestinians have come a long
way together. But still, hard work remains ahead,” he continued.
and the Palestinians are, in my judgment, ripe today to restart the peace
His words were met with warm applause from the 100- plus guests
in the White House’s East Room, among them former secretary of state Madeleine
Albright, former senate majority leader George Mitchell, Nobel Peace Prize
laureate Elie Wiesel, Rabin’s daughter Dalia Rabin and a host of members of
Congress and pro-Israel heavyweights.
Peres, who was the only 2012
Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient to get his own ceremony and dinner,
praised Obama “as a great leader, as a champion for peace,” and as someone who
has said that “Israel’s security is sacrosanct” and has acted
Obama offered his own words of praise for Peres in
presenting him with the award – America’s highest civilian honor – and in the
toast he made over a glass of white wine, the customary pairing for the parve
fish dinners that are the staple of Washington Jewish gatherings, though this
event also featured goldem-bossed plates and gilded table candelabras a cut above
the standard grain.
Obama recited from Peres’s Nobel Peace Prize speech:
“A man may feel as old as his years, yet as young as his dreams.”
then added, “Shalom, and may we always be as young as our dreams.” After his
words, the Hebrew toast of “L’Haim!” filled the air.
dinner, guests were treated to pieces performed by Itzhak Perlman, who joked
that his appearance that evening was like so many others he made early in his
career as a performer at Jewish fund-raisers.
He recalled coming on to
play at the end of the evening, following dinner and pledges for donations, when
“everybody was tired and they couldn’t wait to leave – including
He added, to loud laughter, “Now, so many years later, it’s the
Perlman’s words weren’t the only ones that got
Obama elicited some when he said he was going to ask Peres’s
son-in-law doctor for health tips, and suggested he might have some political
advice as well, with his father-in-law having won the presidency at age
He then listed some of Peres’s many accomplishments while taking a
playful jibe at Albright.
“He’s persevered, serving in virtually every
position – in dozens of cabinets, some two dozen ministerial posts, defense
minister, finance minister, foreign minister three times,” Obama listed. “Try
And he noted the tough road Peres has worn, when
victory was not always his.
“I think Shimon would be the first to tell
you that in the ups and downs of Israeli politics, he has been counted out more
than once. But in him we see the essence of Israel itself – an indomitable
spirit that will not be denied,” he said.
Then he borrowed a moniker from
Bill Clinton – who successfully dubbed himself the “Comeback Kid” after losing
the first-in-the-nation Iowa Democratic primary but going on to take New
Hampshire and eventually the nomination soon after.
“I think president
Clinton would agree with me on this – Shimon Peres is the ultimate ‘Comeback
Kid,’” Obama said.
Returning again to the theme of Peres and his dream,
he noted that some have called Peres a dreamer. Though that word has at times
been used to describe the Israeli president in a less than flattering way, Obama
embraced the image.
“They are right. Just look at his life,” he said.
“The dream of generations, after 2,000 years, to return to Israel, the historic
homeland of the Jewish people – Shimon lived it. The dream of independence, a
Jewish State of Israel – he helped win it.”
He concluded, “Yes, Shimon
Peres – born in a shtetl in what was then Poland, who rose to become president
of Israel – he is a dreamer. And rightly so.”