Stephen Collinson, AFP
Last updated: 14 June, 2012

Obama honors Peres as the “essence of Israel”

US President Barack Obama praised President Shimon Peres as the “essence of Israel itself” as he awarded the Israeli statesman America’s highest civilian honor.

Obama hosted a dinner for Peres, attended by guests including former president Bill Clinton, in a show of respect and affection for the president that reflects close US-Israeli relations.

“No individual has done so much over so many years to build our alliance and bring our two nations closer as the leader we honor tonight — our friend, Shimon Peres,” Obama said before awarding Peres the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“In him we see the essence of Israel itself — an indomitable spirit that will not be denied,” Obama said, praising Peres for a political career that spanned “the entire life” of the state of Israel.

Dubbing Peres the “ultimate comeback kid,” Obama marveled at his guest’s frequent reinventions over decades in turbulent Israeli politics and told Peres he had earned his place in history long ago.

“Shimon teaches us to never settle for the world as it is, we have a vision of the world as it ought to be and we have to strive for it.”

Obama lauded Peres, 88, for working with every American president since John F. Kennedy in the 1960s, and said that the “bonds” between the United States and Israel were “unbreakable” and “non-negotiable.”

The US president welcomed Peres to the White House at a time when US officials hope to deter Israel from making a unilateral strike against Iran’s nuclear program.

Peres, despite tension between the Obama administration and the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told the US president that Israel supported his effort to reverse Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“The Iranian people are not our enemies, it is the present leadership that became a threat. It turned Iran into a danger to world peace,” Peres said.

“It is a leadership that aims to rule the Middle East, spreading terror … they are trying to build a nuclear bomb.

“They bring darkness to a world longing for light,” Peres said before a formal dinner in the ornate East Room of the White House.

Peres also said that he accepted the Medal of Freedom on behalf of the people of Israel and also paid tribute to his slain partner, former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995.

His appearance came less than five months before November’s US presidential election and amid speculation that Obama will fail to emulate the dominant position among Jewish voters that Democrats normally enjoy.

Republicans charged that Obama has let down Israel by publicly disagreeing with Netanyahu over peace talks with Palestinians, for instance, but the White House insists Obama has strengthened the alliance

“You have pledged a lasting friendship for Israel,” Peres told Obama. “So you pledged, so you act, so you are acting.”