Israeli President Shimon Peres gave President Obama Israel’s highest civilian award, the Medal of Distinction, during a ceremonial dinner held in Mr. Obama’s honor Thursday evening at the Israeli president’s residence.
The medal recognizes Mr. Obama’s commitment to maintaining Israel’s security, and it is the first time in which an Israeli president has bestowed such an honor on a sitting president. Mr. Obama gave Mr. Peres, a lifetime Israeli politician who twice served as prime minister of the country, the U.S. President’s Medal of Freedom last year. He will turn 90 in August.
“It is my privilege to present you with our country’s highest honor,” Mr. Peres said. “This award speaks to your tireless work to make Israel strong. Your president has given the close ties between Israel and the United States a new height.”
“The people of Israel are particularly moved by your unforgettable contribution to their security,” he continued. “One occasion, when we were alone, you stood with us so we were not alone … we will never forget it.”
Taking the podium after Mr. Peres draped the blue-and-white-ribboned award over his shoulders, Mr. Obama, speaking in Hebrew, gave him the Israeli blessing of longevity: “Ad Meah ve Esrim” (“Until age 120”). He ended the toast with “L’Chaim” (“To life).
Before the toast, he asked for more wine so he could raise his glass, joking that the wine glass should then be removed from the podium so photos taken of the event won’t show it and the press won’t accuse him of having too much fun in Israel.
“This is an extraordinary honor for me,” he said. “I could not be more deeply moved.”
Mr. Obama spoke about the Jewish people’s story of “slavery and salvation” and how that message has “inspired the world.”
Blacks, he said, “who so often have to deal with their own challenges,” can especially relate to the Jewish plight.
“African-Americans and Jewish-Americans marched together at Selma and Montgomery,” he said. “With rabbi carrying the Torah as they walked. They boarded buses for Freedom Rides together. They bled together — they gave their lives together.”
“Because of their sacrifice, because of the struggle of generations in both our countries, we can come together tonight in freedom and security,” he added.
He ended his remarks by saying he was accepting the award “on behalf of the American people.”
The ceremony took place at a gala dinner that included Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, and numerous Israeli lawmakers and senior members of the U.S. administration, including Secretary of State John F. Kerry and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon.
Mr. Kerry was seated at a table with Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States. When Mrs. Netanyahu came by his stable, Mr. Kerry kissed her on both cheeks.