Israeli President Shimon Peres, who just travelled to Washington to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, is today a much loved and popular elder statesmen of Israel. Peres at 88 years old has his own Facebook page, which he promoted with a music video “Share peace”, and Haaretz reported in March that he had an 81 percent approval rating – 9 percent more than a year ago and easily the highest among Israeli political leaders.
However, Ron Kampeas notes that this was not always the case, and that it is only now that Peres is getting widespread acclaim for his 75+-year-long career. Kampeas writes that in the past:
“[Peres] always seemed doomed to defeat at the polls because of everything he was not: a soldier, a sabra, a gladhander, a gladiator in Israel’s rough-and-tumble political arena. It has taken Peres, a leader in the Zionist enterprise since his second decade, until his ninth decade to receive the accolades for what he was: the fixer who married Israel to the West.”
Kampeas also provides a detailed outline of Peres’ political successes and failures – click here.
David Makovsky, a senior analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy notes that Peres strengthened the US-Israel relationship in the 1980s by articulating “a vision of Israel that many in the West found they could support”. Makovsky writes that Peres “was someone who believed that Israel was rooted in its Jewish values and universal values, and that went together”.
Peres’ ability to foster positive relationships with the West, and in particular the United States was very much on display in Washington on June 13 when he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest civilian award the United States government can bestow upon an individual. In a gala dinner held in Washington in Peres’ honour, US President Barack Obama praised the Israeli President’s legacy and efforts on behalf of peace, he said:
“The United States is fortunate to have many allies and partners around the world. Of course, one of our strongest allies, and one of our closest friends, is the State of Israel… And 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…
Shimon knows the necessity of strength. As Ben-Gurion said, ‘an Israel capable of defending herself – which cannot be destroyed – can bring peace nearer.’ And so he’s worked with every American President since John F. Kennedy. And it’s why I’ve worked with Prime Minister Netanyahu to ensure that the security cooperation between the United States and Israel is closer and stronger than it has ever been. Because the security of the State of Israel is non-negotiable. And the bonds between us are unbreakable.
And yet, Shimon knows that a nation’s security depends, not just on the strength of its arms, but upon the righteousness of its deeds – its moral compass… He knows, as Scripture teaches, that we must not only seek peace, we must pursue it. And so it has been the cause of his life – peace, security and dignity, for Israelis and Palestinians and all Israel’s Arab neighbors…”
Obama also said of Peres, “In him we see the essence of Israel itself… an indomitable spirit that will not be denied.”
Peres in accepting the award said that it was “a testament to the historic friendship” between Israel and the US, and also said that he accepted the award on behalf of all Israelis. Peres made the following speech:
“Mr. President, I was profoundly moved by your decision to award me the Presidential Medal of Freedom. To receive it is an honor. And to receive it from you, Mr. President, is a privilege that I shall cherish forever. It is a testament to the historic friendship between our two nations. When I was really young, the founder of the State of Israel, David Ben Gurion, called me to work with him. For sixty-five years, inspired by his leadership, I gathered strength for my country. Pursued peace for my people. I learned that public service is a privilege that must be based on morality. I receive this honor today on behalf of the people of Israel. They are the true recipients of this honor. With this moving gesture, you are paying tribute to generations upon generations of Jews who dreamed of, and fought for, a state of their own. A state that would give them shelter. A state that they could defend.
Mr. President, You are honoring the pioneers who built homes on barren mountains, on shifting sands. Fighters who sacrificed their lives for their country. On their behalf, I thank America for days of concern, for sleepless nights, caring for our safety, for our future.
Tonight, Mr. President, you kindly invited outstanding personalities whose commitment to Israel is nothing less than heroic. I offer them the eternal gratitude of my people. Present here is Dalia Rabin, the daughter of my partner, the unforgettable, Yitzhak Rabin, who gave his life for peace.
Mr. President, You have pledged a lasting friendship for Israel. You stated that Israel’s security is “sacrosanct.” So you pledged. So you acted. As a great leader, as a genuine friend. Israel admires the United States, for being a land of the free. A home of the brave. A nation of generosity. A world without the United States and her values would have been chaotic. Moses began the journey to freedom by demanding “Let my people go.” The prophet Isaiah promised: “Nation will not take up sword against nation.” A biblical promise became a grand American reality. When the Liberty Bell rang in Philadelphia, it resonated throughout the world. A tired world was surprised to witness, contrary to its experience, a great nation growing greater by giving, not by taking. By making generosity the wisdom of policy, and freedom as its heart. Freedom from oppression and persecution.
Freedom from violence and evil. Freedom from discrimination and ignorance. Liberty that does not fear liberty.
Liberty that does not interfere with the liberty of others. You introduced a constitution, based on balance, not on force.
Liberty is the soul of the Jewish heritage. We didn’t give up our values, even when facing furnaces and gas chambers. We lived as Jews, we died as Jews, and rose again as free Jews. Israel did not survive merely to be a passing shadow in history, but as a new Genesis, a start-up nation.
We were faced with the worst in humanity. But also experienced the best in humanity. When we discovered that we were short of land and water, we realized that we had a priceless resource: The courageous, undefeatable human spirit. We invested in knowledge and turned our attention to the ever-growing promise of science. Unlike land and water, science cannot be conquered by armies or won by wars. In fact, if applied rightly, science can make wars unnecessary. Science provided Israel with unexpected economic growth. In the last twenty years our economy grew two hundred and seventy percent. Science has enabled us to build an agriculture based on technology, that yield ten times more than the norm. It has enabled us to build an effective defense against armies ten-times greater. Brave soldiers and sophisticated tools brought us victory. But, we remained the people of the book. Yes, my friends, Israel is the living proof that democracy means progress. Science means growth. Literature and arts means enrichment. Israel today is an innovative, pluralistic society, where Christians, Arabs, Jews Bedouins and Druse live together in peace. It is not yet perfect, but it is an example of what can be.
My Friends, We are now witnessing the departure of one age and the arrival of a new one. The agricultural age lasted 10,000 years. The scientific age is still fresh. Yet in the last fifty years, the scientific age has achieved more than in the previous 10,000 years. This new age has brought new challenges, and new dangers. It generated a global economy, but not a global government. It gave birth to the horrors of global terrorism, without global control.
The danger is today concentrated in Iran. The Iranian people are not our enemy. It is the present leadership that became a threat. It turned Iran into a danger to world peace. It is a leadership that aims to rule the Middle East. Spreading terror all over the world. They are trying to build a nuclear bomb. They bring darkness to a world longing for light. We have a solemn responsibility to our own people, to our friends throughout the world, to posterity. The Iranian threat must be stopped. It cannot be delayed. Mr. President, you worked hard to build a world coalition to meet this immediate threat. You started, rightly, with economic sanctions. You made it clear, rightly again, that all options are on the table. Clearly, we support it.
Friends, Extremists are using the conflict with the Palestinians to cover their true ambitions. The majority of people are tired of war. In many homes, families still mourn the loss of their loved ones. I believe that peace with the Palestinians is more urgent than ever before. It is necessary. It is crucial. It is possible. A delay may worsen its chances. I remember that 19 years ago, on the lawn outside this house, President Clinton helped us initiate the peace process. Since then, Israelis and Palestinians have come a long way together, but still, hard work remains ahead. Israel and the Palestinians are ripe today to restart. 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. 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. Even in the face of doubt and disappointment. Leaders should not only try to rule from the top but also guide their people to move ahead. Just imagine what could be… Now the young Arab generation has opened its eyes and stood up against oppression, poverty, and corruption. They seek freedom. They understand that freedom begins at home. I pray for their success. It may become a success for all.
My vision is an Israel living in full, genuine peace, joining with all the people of the Middle East, former enemies and new friends alike. Jerusalem becoming the capital of peace. An Israel that is a scientific center, open to all, serving all. A green Israel in an increasingly green Middle East. My vision is an Israel whose moral call is old as the Ten Commandments tablets and whose imagination is as new as a digital tablet. Together, our ancient and modern vision can help bring Tikkun Olam.
I believe that in the coming decade, Israel will be a center of the latest developments in brain research. As the secrets of the human brain are revealed, people may improve their capacity to choose between right and wrong. In the absence of global government, the ability to govern ourselves can contribute to world peace.
Dear Friends, My greatest hope is that a dawn will rise where every man and woman, Israeli or Palestinian, Syrian or Lebanese, young people, wherever they are, will wake up and be able to say to themselves: ‘I am free to be free.’ Amen.”
Yoram Dori, an advisor to Peres, watched the White House ceremony, and in reflecting on his years of working with Peres wrote the following in the Jerusalem Post:
“During Wednesday’s ceremony, while Obama gave a long speech praising Peres, I remembered different moments in my work with him, and one in particular came to mind.
It was when he was foreign minister and appeared before the Council of Europe’s foreign ministers in Brussels, speaking after an exceptionally harsh address against Israel by the foreign minister of Sweden.
In her speech, there was not a crime Israel wasn’t blamed for: oppression, discrimination, war-mongering, excessive use of force and even war crimes. I watched Peres. He didn’t move as he heard these outrageous accusations, and his speech opened with a question to all the foreign ministers present.
Peres said that he had acquired a lot of experience with foreign policy but could not fathom Sweden’s policy. Could they? Then, he reminded his audience, when the world witnessed the slaughter of six million Jews and 30 million others during World War II, Sweden – yes, the same Sweden that now preaches morality to Israel, chose to be neutral.
‘Can someone in this hall explain to me this policy?’ he asked. At this point, Peres turned to each of the foreign ministers personally and asked: ‘Perhaps your excellency can decipher the code of this neutrality for me? How could anyone be neutral against the Nazis?’ You could cut the air with a knife. The shocked ministers nodded soberly in agreement with Peres. The Swedish minister, young and pretty, shrank in her chair.
After the Israeli foreign minister stepped down, the discussion turned to other matters, and Israel, for a while, was off the European agenda.
I recalled this incident and many others while I witnessed the White House ceremony, causing me to feel pride rather than my usual, old cynicism. My normal pessimism was replaced by Peres’s famous optimism. I realized that the story of the boy who moved from a wooden hut in Vishneva to the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, a shepherd on the hills above Lake Kinneret who became the revered leader of a global hi-tech superpower was why Peres won this medal.
It is actually the story of the State of Israel. Democratic Israel, independent Israel, a Jewish state that strives for peace with its Arab neighbors.
On my way home to Israel, I thought to myself that it would be a good idea if each and every one of us would let go – even for a moment – of the cynicism that surrounds us, and become Shimon Peres, if only for a day.”
Peres also conducted an interview with American journalist Jeffrey Goldberg featuring some thoughts on Iran, his experience with past US Presidents, and hi-tech, the first part of which is here.