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Obama Awards Peres Medal of Freedom at White House Dinner

Israeli President Shimon Peres was awarded the U.S. Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, who praised his guest at a White House dinner for his “extraordinary” service.

“In him we see the essence of Israel itself: an indomitable spirit that will not be denied,” the president said last night in honoring Peres, 88, who has served in the Israeli government since 1952. Obama also said that the security of Israel is “non-negotiable.”

The issue of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, who was arrested in Washington in 1985, is expected to come up during closed-door sessions between Peres and Obama. Last week, Peres said he would request Pollard’s release when he meets with Obama, the Jerusalem Post reported on June 5.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the U.S. on April 8 to free Pollard, who was sentenced to life in prison for passing classified information to Israel. Netanyahu cited reports that Pollard’s health has deteriorated.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said yesterday the U.S. probably wouldn’t change its position on Pollard, and there was no mention of the matter at last night’s ceremony.

In accepting his award, Peres called for a Palestinian state alongside Israel and praised young Arabs for seeking freedom and for standing up “against oppression, poverty and corruption.”

Critical Voters

Though just 2 percent of the U.S. population identify their religion as Jewish, according to the Gallup poll, they were a critical part of Obama’s 2008 base.

Obama won in 2008 with 78 percent support from Jewish voters, according to national exit polls. Republicans don’t expect to win over the community outright in 2012. They want to win enough Jewish Democrats and independents to change the outcome in some swing states.

Obama has been losing support among Jewish voters, according to a Gallup survey. Obama has 64 percent support from Jewish voters compared to 29 percent for Republican challenger Romney. In an October and November 2008 survey, Obama had 74 percent support from Jewish voters, 10 percentage points more than he has today. The survey polled 576 registered Jewish voters between April 11 and June 5 and has a five-point error margin.

Guests at last night’s event included former president Bill Clinton, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.

Award Winners

At a May 29 ceremony, Obama honored the other 12 people to receive the Medal of Freedom, including music icon Bob Dylan and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Obama said then that Peres “has done more for the cause of peace in the Middle East than just about anybody alive” and added last night that Peres has been “strengthening the bonds between our nations for some 65 years, the entire life of the state of Israel.”

Other medal recipients include author Toni Morrison; former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens; John Doar, a lawyer who played key roles in the civil rights era and Watergate investigation; epidemiologist William Foege; farmworker organizer Dolores Huerta; and Pat Summitt, the former University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach and Alzheimer’s patient advocate.

The National Jewish Democratic Council congratulated Peres for receiving the honor.

“As American Jews, we are proud and deeply gratified that the president of the United States has chosen to recognize the life’s work of one of Israel’s most important and central leaders,” Marc Stanley, chairman of the council, and David Harris, its chief executive officer, said in a statement.

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