Obama embraces Peres at medal ceremony

“I receive this honor today on behalf of the people of Israel. They are the true recipients of this honor.”

Peres and Obama 370 (photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO)
Peres and Obama 370
(photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom / GPO)
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.
It 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 always.
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 process.
Thank you very much,” Peres said into the adjusted microphone.
“Since then, the Israelis and Palestinians have come a long way together. But still, hard work remains ahead,” he continued.
“Israel and the Palestinians are, in my judgment, ripe today to restart the peace process.”
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 accordingly.
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.”
Obama 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.
Following the 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 myself.”
He added, to loud laughter, “Now, so many years later, it’s the same.”
Perlman’s words weren’t the only ones that got laughs.
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 83.
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 that, Madeleine.”
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.”