WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama on Wednesday awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, to Israeli President Shimon Peres. The ceremony at the White House was followed by an intimate black-tie dinner and an after-dinner reception featuring violinist Itzhak Perlman.
Peres, 88, has held dozens of positions within the Israeli government during his career, but his current role is largely ceremonial. In his toast to Peres, Obama called the two-time prime minister and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize "a warrior for peace," who "teaches us to never settle for the world as it is."
Obama went on to praise Peres for devoting his life to the causes of "peace, security and dignity, for Israelis and Palestinians and all Israel’s Arab neighbors. And even in the darkest moments, he’s never lost hope in -- as he puts it -- "a Middle East that is not a killing field, but a field of creativity and growth."
Obama used the opportunity to reaffirm his unequivocal support for Israel, telling guests, "the security of the state of Israel is non-negotiable. And the bonds between us are unbreakable." Missing from the remarks was any sign of the frosty personal relationship Obama has with Israel's current head of state, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Peres gave an equally lofty toast in return, echoing Obama's emphasis on a lasting peace in the Middle East. "I believe that peace with the Palestinians is most urgent -- urgent than ever before," said Peres. "It is necessary. It is crucial. It is possible. A delay may worsen its chances."
"Israel and the Palestinians are, in my judgment, ripe today to restart the peace process," Peres said to an audience that included former president Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
"A firm basis already exists. A solution of two national states -- a Jewish state, Israel; an Arab state, Palestine. The Palestinians are our closest neighbors. I believe they may become our closest friends," he said. "Peace with the Palestinians will open ports of peace all around the Mediterranean. The duty of leaders is to pursue freedom ceaselessly, even in the face of hostility, in the face of doubt and disappointment. Just imagine what could be."
Also in the audience was Clinton's former secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, along with author and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Elie Wiesel, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
The Presidential Medal of Freedom, while typically bestowed on American citizens, has been awarded to a number of foreign dignitaries, including former South African President Nelson Mandela and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The award's parameters are broad -- it recognizes individuals who have advanced either national security and U.S. interests, world peace, or cultural endeavors.