- New president, Rivlin, who has long been an opponent of efforts to establish a Palestinian state, says Israel is against terrorism and not against the Palestinian people or Islam
- More than 30 have died, along with three civilians on the Israeli side and more than 700 Palestinians, most of them civilians have been killed in recent Gaza clashes
Reuven Rivlin, a legislator from the hawkish Likud Party has assumed the ceremonial but high-profile presidency after Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shimon Peres ended his term as Israel president on Thursday.
Peres, a man who symbolises hopes for peace capping a seven-decade public career amid the brutal reality of war, has made it clear that he has no intention to retire but few expect him to hold public office again, after a career that dates back to the 1940s and has seen him occupy almost every major government position in the land.
“I did not imagine that in the last days of my presidency I would be called upon, once more, to comfort bereaved families,” Peres, 90, said in his speech at the handover ceremony. He blamed the Islamic militant group Hamas for starting the current war by firing barrages of rockets at Israel, but also emphasised that “Israel is not the enemy of the people of Gaza.”
Rivlin’s theme was similar. “We are not fighting against the Palestinian people, and we are not at war with Islam,” he said. “We are fighting against terrorism.” In sharp contrast to Peres, however, Rivlin has long been an opponent of efforts to establish a Palestinian state.
Peres spent the last days of his seven-year term consoling families of soldiers killed in two weeks of fighting. More than 30 have died, along with three civilians on the Israeli side and more than 700 Palestinians, most of them civilians. During his visits, Peres is seen clutching the hands of grieving mothers, wives and siblings, pressing them to remain strong
“On the one hand he feels great satisfaction from having served Israel,” said his spokeswoman, Ayelet Frisch. “On the other hand he feels sadness for these days when Israel does not know peace.”
Peres, who once struggled for popularity, is widely seen as an opportunistic political operator. Having never served in the army, he lacked the halo that propelled former generals like Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon to political heights. Since the 1980s, he came to be associated with a single-minded drive to achieve peace with the Arabs that many in Israel considered naive and out of touch with the hostility toward Israel in the region. Undeterred, Peres published books like 1993’s “The New Middle East,” predicting a near future in which economic mutual interest trump ethnic and religious hatreds.
A long-time leader of the center-left Labor Party, Peres lost elections in 1977, 1981, 1988 and 1996, managing a sort-of tie in 1984, even though under his rival, the incumbent Yitzhak Shamir, Israel’s inflation was running around 400 percent and the country was mired in an unpopular war in Lebanon. Considering such electoral futility, it is remarkable that he served for three brief terms as prime minister and has also been foreign minister, defence minister and finance minister, among many other posts.
Israel’s president is meant to serve as a unifying figure and moral compass — while executive power rests with the prime minister, currently the conservative Benjamin Netanyahu.