During East Room dinner attended by renowned guests, President Obama hails Israel's visionary "warrior for peace"...
During an intimate black-tie dinner for about 140 guests at the White House on Wednesday evening, President Obama bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, on Israel's President Shimon Peres. Proclaiming Peres "a warrior for peace" who "teaches us to never settle for the world as it is," the President honored Peres as his family, Administration officials, lawmakers, and a contingent of Jewish American notables watched from candle-lit tables in the East Room. The ceremony was followed by a reception featuring a performance by violinist Itzhak Perlman.
"The man, the life that we honor tonight is nothing short of extraordinary," President Obama, clad in a black tuxedo, said from a podium at the front of the crowded room.
"In him we see the essence of Israel itself: an indomitable spirit that will not be denied."
A Nobel Peace laureate and two-time prime minister, Peres, 88, was just 23 years old when he became a trusted aid to his country's founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. He was seated beside First Lady Michelle Obama as he listened to the President sing his historic praises. Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former president Bill Clinton were also on hand (though they arrived after the Medal was awarded), as was Elie Wiesel and former Secretary of State Secretary Madeleine Albright, who was also recently awarded the Medal of Freedom. Each was recognized in the President's speech. (Above: The President places the Medal on Peres)
President Obama used his toast to reaffirm his unequivocal support for Israel, saying "the security of the state of Israel is non-negotiable. And the bonds between us are unbreakable."
He praised Peres for devoting his life to "peace, security and dignity, for Israelis and Palestinians and all Israel’s Arab neighbors," and for aspiring to "a Middle East that is not a killing field, but a field of creativity and growth."
In his response toast, Peres echoed the President's call for a lasting Middle East peace, focusing on the Palestinians and thanking the President for helping to build an international coalition to impose sanctions on Iran, and praising him for following through on his pledge to protect Israel. (Above: Peres during his remarks)
"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, calling it "urgent" and "necessary" and "crucial."
"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," Peres 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."
The guests rose to their feet after Peres finished speaking, clapping. Mrs. Obama, clad in a black, floorlength one-shoulder gown with a complicated gold chain belt, embraced him and kissed him.
Guests included Peres' children Tzvia, Yoni and Chemi and their families, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Sen. Joe Lieberman (CT), Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind); Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass), chair of the Foreign Relations committee; Sen. Carl Levin (Mich), chair of the Armed Services Committee, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Chief of Staff Jack Lew, Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, Alan Dershowitz, Haim Saban, Ziad Asali, the president of the American Task Force on Palestine, Howard Friedman, a past president of AIPAC and of JTA, and the incoming chairman of the board of Baltimore’s The Associated, Alan Solow, the immediate past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, George Mitchell, and former House member Robert Wexler. (Above: Clinton listens to the toasts)
The White House declined to release the dinner menu or a full guest list. The room was filled with round tables for ten covered with white tablecloths, with centerpieces of yellow and green roses in silver vases. Three long tapers were in vermeil candle holders on each table. Perlman performed after the dinner at 8:45 PM. Seated on the stage and accompanied by a pianist, Mozart's Tempo di Minuetto was among Perlman's selections. His daughter Dalia was also a guest at the dinner. (Above: The President and Mrs. Obama escort Peres into the East room ahead of the dinner)
The Presidents' remarks:
The transcript of the Presidents' remarks.
Peres returned to the presidential guest quarters, the Blair House, after the White House festivities, where the celebration continued with a cocktail reception, according to photos posted to his official Twitter, @PresidentPeres. On Thursday, Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren will host a reception for Peres at his Washington residence. (Above: A Tweeted Instagram of Peres at Blair House)
Gifts for the President and First Lady...
On Wednesday afternoon, the President and Peres had an Oval Office bilateral, where Peres presented the President with a copy of his book, a biography of Ben-Gurion. Peres also presented the President with a collection of historic documents, including a letter from Chaim Weizmann urging President Harry Truman to recognize the State of Israel; a short letter signed by Truman, in which he recognized Israel's first government; and a missive from David Ben-Gurion, thanking Truman for recognizing Israel's provisional government.
Mrs. Obama was presented with a special necklace created from "uniquely Israeli materials," made by people with disabilities.
Peres arrived in the US last Sunday and visited New York before traveling to Washington on Monday, when he met with top Pentagon officials. (Above: Perlman and Biden chat at the dinner)
On Tuesday, he joined Secretary Clinton in a special discussion hosted by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. On Thursday, Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren will host a reception for Peres at his Washington residence.
Peres is not the first world leader to be honored with the Medal of Freedom by President Obama: The President awarded the Medal of Freedom to German Chancellor Angela Merkel last June during a State Dinner in her honor.
The President honored this year's other Medal of Freedom recipients during a White House ceremony on May 29th. Honorees included cultural icons Bob Dylan and Toni Morrison, civil rights activist and labor leader Dolores Huerta, as well as Albright and astronaut John Glenn. (Above: The Presidents shake hands after the Medal presentation)