Why is Israeli President Shimon Peres getting the US Medal of Freedom?

While it doesn't happen every year, it's not exactly rare for a foreign head of state or of government to be awarded the US Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian award.

Yuri Gripas/Reuters
US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (l.) shakes hands with Israel's President Shimon Peres before their meeting at the Pentagon in Washington, on June 11.

Why is Israeli President Shimon Peres receiving the US Presidential Medal of Freedom? In asking this, we’re not questioning whether Mr. Peres deserves accolades for his lengthy Mideast career. He’s already won the Nobel Peace Prize, after all. We’re wondering about the propriety of giving America’s highest civilian award to a foreign leader. Is that a common occurrence?

Well, it turns out it doesn’t happen every year, but it’s not exactly a rare thing. American presidents have bestowed the Medal of Freedom on at least 16 foreign heads of state or of government. Past notable winners include Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat (awarded posthumously in 1984), Britain’s Margaret Thatcher (1991), South Africa’s Nelson Mandela (2002), Czech leader Vaclav Havel (2003), and Germany’s Angela Merkel (2011).

The US Presidential Medal of Freedom is not meant to recognize service to the US, per se. Under an executive order issued by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, those eligible for the Medal of Freedom include “any person who has made an especially meritorious contribution to (1) the security or national interests of the United States, or (2) world peace, or (3) cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”

As we’ve noted before, the bottom line of those criteria is that the medal can go to pretty much anyone who’s accomplished anything the US president likes.

Peres in particular is one of Israel’s founding leaders, and as such his award is meant to celebrate the ties between the two nations as well as his individual contributions.

Of course, Israel isn’t popular with everybody in the US, so Peres’ award has engendered some controversy. Comedian/activist Roseanne Barr, for instance, added one word, “protest,” in a retweet of an announcement of tonight’s ceremony.

But two-time Israeli Prime Minister Peres, now 88, has evolved into something of a Mideast elder statesman. As Israeli president – a largely ceremonial post – he has become more popular in his home country than he was when he held more powerful political posts.

And he’s not coming to the White House empty-handed. According to the Israeli paper Haaretz, he’s bringing gifts: a letter from Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann, urging President Harry Truman to recognize Israel; a letter from President Truman to Israel doing just that; and a letter back to Truman from Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, thanking him for that recognition.

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