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President Barack Obama awarded Israeli President Shimon Peres the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a White House ceremony on June 13.
As foreign minister, Shimon Peres was a crucial figure behind Israel's 1994 Peace Treaty with Jordan and as prime minister hosted King Hussein when the latter visited Israel in 1996.
Shimon Peres Awarded the Presidential Medal
A Nobel Peace Prize laureate, honorary British knight and recipient of numerous honorary doctorates from universities in the U.K., Russia, Mexico and Turkey, Israeli President Shimon Peres can now add the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom to his long list of accolades.
President Barack Obama, who awarded Peres the United States’ highest civilian honor at a ceremony earlier this month in Washington, praised his guest for his “extraordinary” service. Noting Peres’s contribution to the U.S.-Israel relationship, he said that “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.”
Accepting the award surrounded by friends, family and dignitaries that spanned his seven-decade career in public service, Peres called it “a testament to the historic friendship between our two nations.”
The Essence of Israel Itself
In his citation for the medal, Peres was called “an ardent advocate for Israel’s security and the cause of lasting peace.”
Peres’s commitment to Israel’s security began even prior to its establishment as a state. Joining the Haganah – the underground military organization that served as a predecessor to the Israel Defense Forces – in 1947, he was responsible for building Israel’s earliest defenses under the direction of David Ben-Gurion.
In 1953, at the age of 29, Peres was named Director-General of Israel’s Ministry of Defense, the youngest person ever to hold the position. In this role, he helped to secure arms and build strategic alliances that would prove vital to tipping the balance of power in the region in Israel’s favor.
Peres accepted his medal on behalf of “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.” Indeed, Peres has worked for over 70 years to ensure that Israel could shelter its people. He made sure that the Jewish state could defend itself.
Beyond his fight for Israel’s security, Peres had made lasting steps for peace with the country’s neighbors. As Minister of Defense, he laid the groundwork for peace with Egypt in the form of the 1975 Interim Agreement on the Sinai Peninsula, in which both sides declared that the conflict between them “shall not be resolved by military force but by peaceful means.” In 1985, Peres withdrew Israeli troops from Lebanon north of the Litani River, demonstrating that Jerusalem did not covet a single inch of Lebanese territory. And in 1989, as Acting Prime Minister, he oversaw the transfer of Taba, a tiny town on the Egypt-Israel border, back to Egyptian control, completing the handover of the Sinai to Egypt.
Today, Peres’s popularity in Israel may be taken for granted. In a recent Ha’aretz poll, he received an 81 percent approval rating among Israelis, by far the most popular leader in the country. However, this popularity has been hard-won. The protest-ridden elections in 1981, which he lost, and the 1990 “dirty trick” scandal – where he attempted to talk smaller parties into breaking away from the ruling coalition – both marked low points in Peres’s career.
But Peres never let political setbacks get to him. He continued working for the safety and security of the State of Israel, and for peace. In his award speech, President Obama noted that such perseverance made Peres “the essence of Israel itself.”
As Young As His Dreams
Not only was Peres’s spirit unbroken, but his greatest years were still ahead of him. Under the leadership of Yitzhak Rabin, the Labor party came back into power in the 1992 elections and Peres was appointed Israel’s Foreign Minister. In this post, he helped engineer the Oslo Accords and the 1994 Peace Treaty with Jordan.
Having taken these steps, Peres is still resolute in his hope that a final peace agreement will one day be reached. Earlier this month at the White House, he said, “I believe that peace with the Palestinians is more urgent than ever before. It is necessary. It is crucial. It is possible.”
In 1994, along with Rabin and Yasser Arafat, Peres was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in bringing peace closer to a war-torn region. In his Nobel lecture, he said, “From my earliest youth, I have known that while one is obliged to plan with care the stages of one’s journey, one is entitled to dream, and keep dreaming, of its destination. A man may feel as old as his years, yet as young as his dreams.” Peres has been a dreamer his entire life. As a young boy in Poland, he dreamed of life in Israel. In his seven-decade-long career, he has never stopped dreaming of peace.
88 years old, Peres is the world’s oldest head of state, yet he remains “as young as his dreams.” At the Medal of Freedom ceremony, Obama said of Peres, “he’s still going ... always facing tomorrow. Recently, he was asked, ‘What do you want your legacy to be?’ And Shimon replied, ‘Well, it’s too early for me to think about it.’”
AIPAC Diamond Summer Intern Jacob Grossman contributed to this report.