Bob Dylan and John Glenn, Toni Morrison and John Paul Stevens might have earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom they were awarded last month, but they did not receive it in a private ceremony complete with a hundred-guest dinner hosted by President Obama.


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That special treatment was reserved for Shimon Peres, who had a one-on-one meeting with Obama, a dedicated speech from the president, a concert by Itzhak Perlman, and a dinner guest list that inluded former president Bill Clinton, his wife Hillary, and Clinton''s secretary of state Madeleine Albright -- herself part of the group Medal of Freedom ceremony in May.


Washington insiders whispered that the push for extra attention came from the side of the Israeli president rather than the American, which is entirely believable. But it surely suited his host -- looking for ways to boost his standing with the American Jewish community as he heads into a tough election -- as well.


Obama has been on a Jewish tear these days, hosting a Jewish American Heritage Month reception and then "dropping by" back-to-back meetings his chief-of-staff was holding first with Conservative rabbis and then Orthodox leaders. 


But feting Peres has extra appeal. First of all, it is much more public than private meetings and low-profile receptions. Secondly, Obama can look statesmanlike in such a setting -- as well as gracious and generous. He has the grandeur of the White House and the bestowal of a historic honor as his backdrop.


Yet honoring Peres has another benefit: It shows Obama warmly embracing an Israeli leader, and through him Israel, in a way that doesn''t seem merely dictated by the convention of a world leader meeting with another world leader to discuss business. It is a venue that allows for emotion and affection, with an Israeli figure for which both seem plausible.


Obama might tell those who ask -- and many have asked recently -- that he has a good relationship with Netanyahu, that differences are due to the political divide of having a center-left leader in Washington and a center-right leader in Jerusalem. But not only do most observers believe there to be genuine friction between the two, at the very least that political divide causes real strain.


Obama and Peres, in contrast, speak the same language on peace and the region. Peres is the Israeli leader Obama could genuinely have a good relationship with and honestly esteem. And he is a leader highly regarded by American Jews who will return that feeling, who will give Obama the kashrut certificate on his approach toward Israel.


- Hilary Leila Krieger  


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