US President Barack Obama praised President Shimon Peres Wednesday 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 the formal dinner in the ornate East Room of the White House..
"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."
In his speech, Peres said he receives the honor “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.”
He continued: “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.
He also also paid tribute to his slain partner, former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995.
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.
He 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.
“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,” the Israeli president added.
On peace with the Palestinians, Peres declared that 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.”
“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. »
Peres’s 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 Israeli prime Minister Benjamin 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."
US rejects call to release Pollard
But the Israeli President didn’t receive something he requested: the release of Jonathan Pollard, a former US navy analyst, who was convicted of passing thousands of secret documents about American intelligence activities in the Arab world to Israel between May 1984 and his arrest in November 1985. He was sentenced to life in prison.
He was granted Israeli citizenship in 1995 and was officially recognised by the Jewish state as an Israeli spy in 1998.
Nearly 70,000 Israelis had signed a petition calling on Peres to press for the release during his Washington visit.
Peres had said he would ask Obama to grant clemency for Pollard, who has served 27 years of a life sentence for passing U.S. classified information to the Israeli government.
But White House spokesman Jay Carney said the request would not be granted.
"Our position has not changed and will not change today," Carney said. "I would simply remind you that Mr. Pollard was convicted of extremely serious crimes."