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 appreciation.
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President Peres' honors Clinton 390 (Photograph: ShiloPro)
President Peres' honors Clinton 390 (Photograph: ShiloPro)
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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 Israel.”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 home here.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 Israel.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 treasure.”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 the better.”Clinton had mobilized troops of goodwill and encouraged aspirations in a visionary and imaginative way, said Peres.“You offered us what we call in Hebrew tikun olam, which means making the world a better place.”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.Clinton candidly 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 said.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.To 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.It was a very telling insight into positive change, said Clinton.“The first 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” syndrome.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 said.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 you.”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 way.“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 world.”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 friendship.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.His definition of leadership is taking responsibility that others might shirk, stepping in instead of stepping out and being able to take criticism.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.The greatest 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 inability.”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.Unafraid of 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 industry.“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 peace.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 added.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 said.
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