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(photo credit: Channel 2)
Notwithstanding the fact that old soldiers who fought in the 1948 war are dying out, there was a much larger crowd than usual of IDF commanders from 1948 to the present day at the traditional reception hosted for them on Independence Day by President Moshe Katsav.
The reason was that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Suez Campaign, and Independence Day festivities to a large extent focused on the anniversary and on the heroes of that war, some of whom had not been invited to receptions in previous years.
Several of those heroes also fought in 1948, and again in the wars of 1967 and 1973.
Specifically addressing the veterans of the War of Liberation, among them Mahalists - volunteers from abroad who came to help the fledgling state and stayed - Katsav told them: "You revolutionized Jewish history in the most dramatic way. You had not only the capacity, but the vision, faith and commitment to bring about this amazing change after 2000 years of exile," he said.
If the Jewish People had been able to conjure up the heroes who could so dramatically alter Jewish destiny, he said, "they would have imagined you."
Katsav noted that once these warriors of the War of Independence shed their uniforms, they took up important leadership roles in all fields of civilian life and were instrumental in forging the character of the nation and shaping its values.
Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who spoke before Katsav, was part of the official party that in addition to the president included outgoing Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen.Dan Halutz, Before commencing his address, Olmert called Acting Knesset Speaker Shimon Peres to join the group, not only because he is a former prime minister, former defense minister and in his present position, the deputy president of the state, but also because he was director-general of the Defense Ministry during the Sinai Campaign.
Olmert also paid tribute to the founding fathers of all the branches of the armed forces and noted that on Thursday he would present the new government to the Knesset for its approval. "The challenges that lie ahead for Israel are not easy," he said, adding that this government stands at a center point between those who fought for the state's establishment and fashioned its image and those who will take upon their shoulders the mission to continue the task.
Olmert credited all those present with having a part in the nation's 58th anniversary of independence, "not just in historical terms, but because of the contributions you made."
Those now taking on the onus of responsibility, said Olmert, would guarantee the continued existence of the State of Israel, security at a price that people could live with and hopefully peace and happiness in an atmosphere free of the threat of terror.
"We will follow your example of commitment and success," he said.
The tribute to veterans was followed as always by a ceremony recognizing 120 outstanding soldiers from all branches of the IDF.
Some came from long established Israeli families. Others were more recent arrivals with Russian, South American and Ethiopian names. There were also representatives of the Beduin and Druze communities and good mix of Ashkenazi and Sephardi backgrounds, indicating that the Israeli melting pot is still churning.
Katsav momentarily stopped the ceremony when Cpl. Reut Elharar was called up. Elharar is the youngest in a family of 18 children, and Katsav insisted on meeting her parents before allowing the ceremony to proceed.
Excellence, said Halutz, is not something to be taken for granted. It is based on education and values. The 120 outstanding soldiers who each received a scholarship worth $1000 from the Soldiers Welfare Association did more than what was expected of them, said Halutz, "Because they believe in giving of their utmost."
Halutz warned that Israel would have put her human and technological resources on high alert, due to the escalation of Hamas incited terrorism and the threat from Iran.
First Sgt. Avital Naor, a paratroop instructor with 132 jumps to her credit, responded on behalf of the honorees, noting that there were people who thought that Zionism was passe and had faded into the dust of history. "It is alive and well among all of us 58 years after the establishment of the state," she declared.
Naor noted the conflicts that had all but ruptured Israeli society in the past year, and asserted that such differences must not be allowed to affect the attitude and operations of the IDF.
Katsav, who was presiding over this ceremony for the sixth consecutive year, said that it was one of the most moving events that takes place annually at Beit Hanassi.
The IDF, he said, is not just a security force and a paradigm of modern technology, but it represents the stability of the nation. "It is the framework that gives the young generation its values," he said. "The IDF is the best school for good citizenship."
Katsav thanked Mofaz, who in addition to being an outgoing Defense Minister is also a former chief of general staff, for his leadership and his contribution to Israel's security.
He also praised the IDF for enabling Israelis to lead normal lives.
Noting that former prime minister Ariel Sharon had made it a point to attend the ceremony each year, and that he had commanded a paratrooper unit during the Sinai Campaign, Katsav said that his presence was sorely missed. He sent greetings to Sharon with the wish that Sharon would recover from his illness.
To the young soldiers he said: "I am sure that the traits for which you were singled out will accompany you in civilian life and that you will be future leaders."
Turning to politics Katsav said: "We have to be aware of what is evolving in the Middle East. We cannot remain indifferent."
He found it ironic that although the Arab States did not support the creation of a Palestinian State prior to 1967, when Israel finally accepted the concept and announced its support in the Knesset, the Palestinians intensified their terror operations against Israel and denied Israel's right to exist.
He found it equally ironic, that at a time when world leaders can no longer guarantee that the citizens of their respective countries can live in freedom from the fear of terror, that European academics are calling for boycotts against Israel because of the efforts that Israel is making to prevent terrorists from carrying out their plans.
Katsav reiterated the view, which he stated many times in the past, that Hamas cannot claim to have been democratically elected because it has been designated as a terrorist organization by the international community and does not abide by Palestinian commitments to the Oslo accords. "There are people who are exploiting democracy in order to vanquish it and dedemocratize the world," the president said.
With regard to Iran, Katsav found it totally illogical that a country that has no border with Israel and is not threatened by Israel, is nonetheless determined to destroy Israel. Even more illogical he said, is the fact that after the utterances of the president of Iran, there are still countries that are having diplomatic discussions with the Islamic republic.
Recalling his optimism a year ago that on a political level the gaps between Israel and the Palestinians had been reduced to insignificance, Katsav regretted that he could no longer make such an assertion. "Now the gap is wider than it ever was before," he said.
For all that, he refused to give up hope, saying that he wanted to believe that the Palestinian government was elected for reasons of religion and efficiency and not because the Palestinian population agrees with the anti-Israel policy of its leadership.
"We have to believe that peace will come one day," he said.
In a reference to the internal strife to which Israel has been subjected, Katsav emphasized the importance of preserving unity, especially in the face of an enemy who seeks to destroy the whole nation.
The Friends of the IDF arranged for two lone outstanding soldiers to be reunited with their families.
Cpl. Michael Mashbaum, 26 from Baltimore, saw his parents a couple of months back when they came to visit, but at that time neither he nor they knew that he was going to be named an outstanding soldier.
After they received the news the parents Jesse and Helen Mashbaum got in touch with the president's ADC, Brig.-Gen. Shimon Hefetz , to ask if there was some way that they could attend the ceremony. Hefetz in turn contacted the Friends of the IDF, who arranged not only for the parents, but also for Mashbaum's sister Gabrielle Heilaman to come to Israel.
Michael Mashbaum, has made aliya. "I'm here to stay," he told The Jerusalem Post. Mashbaum has a degree in comparative literature which he realizes will not get him very far in Israel. He intends to enroll at the Hebrew University to get another degree with which he can find work.
While the Mashbaum family's visit was not a surprise, that of the mother of Alexei Panpilov, a lone soldier from the Ukraine, most definitely was. Cpl. Panpilov, an engineer by training, is a member of the engineering corps, and was cited for his initiative and his ability to find professional solutions to engineering problems. In appreciation of his devotion to duty, the Friends of the IDF brought his mother from the Ukraine to Beit Hanassi.