With its troops fighting a brutal war in Gaza against Hamas, Israel held a low-key inauguration Thursday for new president Reuven Rivlin.
The veteran Likud lawmaker is known as a hawk who supports a one-state solution. But as his term begins, Rubi, as he is commonly known in Israeli politics, is beginning to sound more and more like his predecessor Shimon Peres, who last month received a Congressional Medal of Honor for his lifetime commitment to peace.
Although the globe-trotting elder statesman has made clear he has no intention to retire, 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 emphasized 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."
Rivlin, 74, was born in Jerusalem nine years before the creation of the State of Israel. He comes from a family steeped in Jewish history, even claiming the Vilna Gaon (the legendary Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna) as one of its members. Rivlin is a die-hard Jerusalemite and long-term fan of the city's Beitar football team (he saw his first team game at the age of 7 - in 1946).
- From Beitar to the President's Residence
Despite being a fervent rightist and opponent of a Palestinian state, Rivlin has vowed to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. "The depth of the conflict demands of us to find ways to communicate," Rivlin, 74, says in his first political interview since winning the presidency almost three weeks ago.
"I have met Abu Mazen (Abbas) on a number of occasions already," Rivlin told Ynet's sister newspaper Yedioth Aharonot. "And I will meet him again in the future," he pledged.
"Both of us understand that direct communication is a precondition for the Middle East as a place for the living, a place that has a future, not just a past."
Rivlin also praised Abbas' condemnation of the kidnapping of Eyal Yifrach, 16, Gil-Ad Shaer, 19, and Naftali Frenkel, 16.
"I listened attentively to the words of the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, who clearly told the kidnappers: 'Bring back the boys.' I see his comments as an opportunity to build trust between the two sides. "
According to Rivlin, Israelis and Palestinians on the need to build trust "not just between the leaders, but also between the people living here. This is a precondition to putting an end to the tragic Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"Trust is based on open and ongoing dialogue; it demands mutual understanding and acceptance; only that way will we be able to mitigate the disagreements, which for years seemed insurmountable," Rivlin said.
"The depth of this conflict, which is more than one hundred years old, requires us to find a way to communicate… so that the residents of the Middle East, Jews and Arabs alike, can live not as if they were forced to live together, but rather destined to live together.
"Whether we like it or not, we share the same geography, breathe the same air and drink the same water."
After winning the election, Rivlin was surprised to discover that Abbas had sent him a letter to mark his victory.
"I am happy to congratulate you on the occasion of your election as president of Israel, and hope that this will help drive the peace process forward to achieve its goals, "Abbas wrote to Rivlin. The Palestinian leader also expressed the hope that their two nations "will live in security, peace and good neighborliness."
Regarding his plans for the future, Rivlin vows to be a president for the entire country.
"My door will be open to everyone. Those who know my stance on Israeli democracy also know that there is nothing more foreign to me than the rejection of a position different to my own," he said.
"I would never disregard someone because of his views, and I fight for his right to express them. Even as the elected president I have the right to choose my beliefs, but I maintain that the door of the President's Residence is open to anyone who wants to join me in dialogue - be they Jews of one stream or another, Arabs from this country or abroad, rich and poor alike.
"The biggest task we face as a society is the creation of a healthy partnership with different sections of Israeli society: Building a bridge between Zionists and non-Zionists; between Jews and Arabs; between religious conservatives and liberals. The president cannot resolve every conflict, but he has the responsibility to do whatever he can to enable us to live within this conflict. Is his responsibility to prepare the ground not only to agree - but also to agree to disagree."