"Every combat soldier knows we'll do all in our power" to secure captives' release, PM says.
By GREER FAY CASHMAN
President Shimon Peres had scant time for respite on Wednesday. While the rest of the country was taking an Independence Day holiday, it was a heavy work day for the president, and somewhat more intensive than it had been for his predecessors.
There were morning receptions for military commanders and heroes from the War of Independence to the present day, as well as for past presidents (or their widows), past and present prime and defense ministers, past and present heads of intelligence and security services, and 120 outstanding soldiers (see box).
In the afternoon there was a reception for diplomats, and in the evening, the presentation of the Israel Prize. Peres also sat down to a long working lunch with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu ahead of the president's trip to the United States to represent Israel at the AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) Policy Conference next week.
Peres is due to leave for Washington on Saturday night and will travel on a regular commercial flight.
US President Barack Obama - one of many world leaders who sent Independence Day greetings, including inter alia Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the presidents of China, Germany, Austria, Croatia, Ireland and Greece, and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon - indicated that he would be pleased to meet with Peres, whom he regards as the most experienced person in conflict resolution in the Middle East.
In his message to Peres, Mubarak wrote that he was seizing the opportunity to "restore the right track of the peace process in the Middle East in order to cease violence and bloodshed, enabling the establishment of the sovereign Palestinian State living side by side with Israel in peace and security."
Peres spent much of the day on Wednesday on his feet. At the reception for heroes and commanders, he looked out over the huge crowd that included old soldiers whose backs were already bent and who relied on canes and crutches for mobility, and said: "You brought a great victory to the Jewish people in war, but more important, you sired and gave birth to a younger generation that represents the security of our future. We invited you here to salute you in the presence of your spouses and children."
Netanyahu called them "the best of commanders and fighters who started a tradition of heroism, camaraderie and mutual responsibility in the War of Independence that continues to the present day."
Netanyahu did not forget kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit or other soldiers in captivity or missing in action.
"Every combatant knows that we will do everything possible to bring him home safe and sound. We are committed to bringing Gilad Schalit home safe and sound to his parents," he said.
Both Netanyahu and Peres noted that today's IDF exudes a strong sense of security that implies an ability to cope with every challenge.
IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen Gabi Ashkenazi, in introducing the 120 outstanding soldiers from all branches of the armed services, said that they had been chosen because they were examples of professional excellence. Some came from minority communities, some were volunteers, some were lone soldiers and new immigrants, and others were part of Israel's regular demographic mix with North African, Russian and Ethiopian surnames.
"They represent the Israel that we would like to see," said Ashkenazi, who added that there were tremendous human interest stories surrounding these 120 soldiers.
As much as they were a source of pride he said, they would not have reached the peak of excellence without the education, example and support they received at home.
This was echoed by one of the 120 soldiers, Tomer Niv, who in speaking on behalf of his comrades said: "We are the products of the societies in which we were raised."
He also noted that the group included immigrant soldiers who came here to serve and to influence.
Neither Ashkenazi nor Niv overlooked those soldiers who made the supreme sacrifice, were in captivity or were MIAs.
Peres told the young soldiers: "You are outstanding soldiers in an outstanding army. There is nothing like the IDF. There is no country as isolated and independent as Israel. Israel does not belong to any church. It is the only Jewish State. Israel does not share a common language with any other country. It is the only country in which the national tongue is Hebrew. Israel does not belong to any security organization, but has to fight alone to defend its terrain, its rule and its heritage."
Peres attributed Israel's very existence to the IDF and other security forces such as the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), Mossad, Police and Border Police.
For all that, he said, no other country had been driven into seven wars and two intifadas in 60 years. Although Israel was small in size, said Peres, in relation to the challenges that it faced, it was a mighty power.
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