U.S. President Barack Obama gave the Medal of Freedom to Israeli President Shimon Peres in a special ceremony at the White House on Wednesday evening (Washington time).
In remarks he made prior to handing Peres the medal, Obama described Israel as “one of our strongest allies and one of our closest friends.” He said that Peres “is nothing short of extraordinary.”
Obama noted that Peres joined the Haganah Jewish defense organization in 1947, when he was in his 20s, and that he ran for President at the age of 83.
“Tonight we have the rare privilege to be in the presence of a true founding father,” said Obama, who noted that Peres “teaches us to never settle for the world as it is. We have a vision for the world as it ought to be and we have to strive for it.”
He stressed that “the security of the State of Israel is non-negotiable and the bonds between us are unbreakable” and added that it is a high honor to bestow the Medal of Freedom on Peres, the “fighter for peace.”
After Obama handed Peres the medal, Peres himself spoke, telling Obama, “I was profoundly moved by your decision to award me the Presidential Medal of Freedom. To receive it from you is a privilege that I will cherish for the rest of life. It’s a testament to the historic friendship between our two nations.”
He added, “I receive this honor on behalf of the people of Israel. They are the true recipients of this honor.”
Peres thanked Obama for pledging “a lasting friendship with Israel. You stated that the security of Israel is sacrosanct to you.”
He added that Israel admires the U.S., saying, “A world without the values of the United States will be chaotic.”
Peres noted that Israel is a true democracy, a true pluralistic society where Jews, Christians and Muslims live together. He addressed the Iranian issue, and stressed that “the Iranian people are not our enemies. It’s the present leadership that became a threat. It’s a leadership that aims to rule the Middle East, spreading terror all over the world. They try to build a nuclear bomb. They bring darkness to a world longing for light.”
He stressed, “The Iranian threat must be stopped and it cannot be delayed.”
Peres spoke about Middle East peace, saying he believes “Israelis and Palestinians are ripe today to restart the peace process. A firm basis already exists, a solution of two states. The Palestinians are our closest neighbors. I believe they may become our closest friends.”
Prior to the ceremony, Peres and Obama held a private meeting, in which they discussed strengthening strategic ties between Israel and the United States, the Iranian issue, and advancing the peace process.
At the start of the meeting Peres warmly thanked Obama and said: “Thank you for all your actions on behalf of Israel. Already at our first meeting, when you were a senator, I was very impressed by your warm attitude towards the State of Israel and I'll never forget what you've done for us.”
During the meeting, Peres also asked Obama to grant a pardon for Jonathan Pollard on humanitarian grounds.
Earlier on Wednesday, White House Spokesman Jay Carney told journalists that “our position has not changed and will not change today” regarding Pollard.
“I would simply remind you that Mr. Pollard was convicted of very serious crimes,” Carney said.
In response, MK Uri Ariel called on Peres to refuse the Medal of Freedom from Obama.
“The U.S. blatantly violates basic human rights,” said Ariel in response to Carney’s comments. “I appeal to the President not to accept the Medal of Freedom.”