US president Barack Obama presents Presidential Medal of Freedom to Israeli president Shimon Peres in Washington. (Reuters)
Israeli president Shimon Peres has been awarded of the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award the US government can give to an individual, by President Barack Obama.
At a dinner in Peres's honour, attended by former former US president Bill Clinton among others, Obama praised Peres as "the essence of Israel itself", remarking on the strong ties between Washington and Jerusalem.
"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," he said.
"No individual has done so much over so many years to build our alliance and bring our two nations closer as the leader we honour tonight - our friend, Shimon Peres."
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The medal was established under the Kennedy presidency in 1963 and is not meant to recognise service to the US per se. Those eligible include anyone who has contributed to "the security of national interests of the United States, or world peace, or cultural or other significant public or private endeavours".
One of Israel's founding fathers, two-time prime minister Peres, 88, holds a largely ceremonial office and has become a sort of "elder wise man" of the Middle East politics.
It was not the first time the United State's highest civilian award was given to a foreign leader. Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, Britain's PM Margaret Thatcher, South Africa's Nelson Mandela, Czech president Vaclav Havel and Germany's prime minister Angela Merkel have all been awarded by the US.
During the ceremony, Peres reminded the guests of Israel's fear of Iran's nuclear ambitions.
"The Iranian people are not our enemies; it is the present leadership that became a threat," he told Obama. "It turned Iran into a danger to world peace. 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.
"I receive this honour today on behalf of the people of Israel," he added. "They are the true recipients of this honour. 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. "
"You are honouring 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."
Meanwhile, the health conditions of jailed Palestinian footballer Mahmoud Sarsak who is on hunger strike are deteriorating after 86 days without eating solid food.
French football star Eric Cantona has joined international calls to release Sarsak.
The former Manchester United forward sent a letter to British sports minister Hugh Robertson and Uefa president Michel Platini, saying Israel should be subjected to the same criticism faced by Poland and Ukraine, which are hosting Euro 2012. The letter was signed also by left-wing critic Noam Chomsky and film director Ken Loach.
Fifa president Blatter himself urged the Israeli Football Association (IFA) to intervene in the case, expressing grave concern regarding Sarsak's health conditions.
Once a star player in the Palestinian national team, Sarsak was jailed by Israel in 2009 as he left the Gaza Strip en route to a match.
He has been held without trial or charge under the infamous "Unlawful Combatants Law", whigh allows Israeli authorities to detain Palestinians from Gaza for an unlimited time without bringing charges or making them stand trial.
Sarsak rejected the deal with Israel that ended a mass hunger strike amoing Palestinian prisoners on 14 May.
He has efused treatment because he has a "deep distrust" of Israeli prison doctors, who have threatened to force-feed him and tried to force him to accept treatment.
Israeli officials have called Sarsak an "Islamic Jihad terrorist who planned attacks and bombings".
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