Israel got a new president on Thursday, when Reuven Rivlin took the oath of office in the Knesset to be faithful to the country and its laws.
Wearing a kippa with the text “I will raise Jerusalem above my foremost joy” – given to him by a Holocaust survivor – Rivlin said the Sheheheyanu blessing for special occasions.
“Long live the president of Israel!” Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein declared.
“Long life! Long life! Long life!” the audience of MKs, former lawmakers and hundreds of other guests exclaimed in return.
The inauguration was a ray of light in a difficult time, despite Rivlin and Edelstein’s decision to cancel the cocktail party and music that usually follow such events.
During the ceremony, air raid sirens went off in eight areas in the South, while southern mayors, who were invited to the Knesset in honor of their residents’ resilience, sat in the plenum.
Rivlin, Edelstein and outgoing President Shimon Peres all paid tribute to soldiers taking part in Operation Protective Edge and sent condolences to families of the fallen.
Edelstein opened the ceremony with a prayer for IDF soldiers.
In Rivlin’s first speech to the nation as president, he said the inauguration was taking place as scheduled “not solely in the name of the law, but to deliver a clear message to our enemies – you cannot and will not defeat us. We are determined to protect the pillars of our regime, as well as the character of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, even in time of war, against terrorism.
“Hamas terrorists can entrench themselves in tunnels, open fire from within schools and use civilians as a living shield. But terrorism will not cause us to withdraw; it will not weaken our spirit,” he said.
Rivlin emphasized that Israel is not fighting the Palestinian people or conducting a war on Islam; rather, it is fighting “cruel and murderous terrorism.”
“The eradication of terrorism is not only just, it is the most humane act. Only the elimination of terrorism will bring an end to the killing of innocent people on both sides,” he said.
Rivlin also touched on topics he often spoke of when he was an MK and speaker of the legislature, saying “the Knesset is the source of strength and vitality of Israeli democracy,” and reminding lawmakers to respect and listen to one another.
“Without listening, the essence of democracy is lost, and decisions by the majority may well become tyranny,” he said, emphasizing the need for tolerance and equality for all.
Finally, the new president relayed a message of hope.
“The Jewish nation has proven its stamina. For 2,000 years we waited to return to our homeland, and today we are safely ensconced here.
“A day will come when the darkness of terrorism will be eradicated from the land. A day will come when we will live here in tranquility and peace, side by side. A day will come when peace will be established between Israel and all its neighbors.
“Today, just as before, even in a time of turbulence and pain, we refuse to abandon our cause; we do not give up the hope to build here the society we dreamed of,” he said.
“Long live the State of Israel!” Rivlin concluded, in tears, and was given a standing ovation.
Peres took a hard line on Hamas in his last speech as president, while expressing hope for peace with the Palestinians in the future.
Peres expressed surprise that “even this time, after we were hit by missiles meant to hurt civilians...after we exposed murderous hidden tunnels used to enter the heart of our towns and rain fire on mothers and children, we would still have to warn the world of the dangers of insane terrorism.
“Terrorism wants to spill our blood and leads to blood flowing in the streets of its people,” he said. “Hamas put hundreds of thousands of Gazans on the war front. They turned Gaza, after over 3,000 years of history, into a man-made tragedy...They forced their children to serve as shields and sent them to burn.”
Peres said not all residents of Gaza are Israel’s enemies, nor are all Arabs, and that Israel opened fire only in response to Hamas rockets.
“Israel will defeat terror because it wants peace and defends itself justly. Israel will win because of the IDF and its excellent commanders and dedicated soldiers.
There is no army like the IDF...
The country is proud of its army.
The nation loves it and the people trust it,” he said.
Referring to recent events, Peres disparaged the UN Human Rights Council’s decision to investigate the situation in Gaza – it should have been “the murderers [instead of] those who refuse to be killed. If the right to life is not the first human right, what is the point of other rights?” He also criticized the cancellation of flights to Israel – “governments must stop terror, not flights.”
Still, Peres said military victory is not enough and only peace can bring security.
“No one ever thought the Arab League, which declared the ‘Three No’s’ in Khartoum [in September 1967], would have a peace plan that would cancel them, [peace] not just between Israel and the Palestinians but with all Arab states. Even if we don’t accept the full plan, we shouldn’t ignore the trend,” he said.
“For the future, we need believers and not just experts. We create a future, we don’t inherit it.
In order to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, Israel adopted a solution based on two states for two nations,” he said.
Peres said farewell to the presidency: “I am leaving my job without leaving behind my deep faith that Israel is a model country.
We are a nation that experienced endless suffering and we are a nation that reached lofty heights.”
“Next to [first prime minister David] Ben-Gurion I saw [Israel] fighting for its life with few resources and endless dangers.
Today I see it [as] strong, safe, blooming, growing in every area.
I see my land promising a great future for its sons and daughters,” he said.
Peres thanked the nation for giving him the privilege to serve them.
“I love you all. Thank you from the depths of my heart,” he said.
Rivlin and Edelstein paid tribute to Peres’s decades of service to the country in their speeches.
“You were a shepherd filled with hope and a poetic visionary,” Rivlin said. “You tied your destiny to the [destiny] of this nation, and constantly sought to look to the future and guide it.
On behalf of myself and the people of Israel, I wish to thank you for carrying the burdens of this nation for generations, a lifetime, and for continuing to do so in the future.”
Edelstein said that when Peres became president seven years ago, he put his “political commitment aside and became a man of the people; everyone’s man.
“You said the right words. You expressed correct emotions. You were a man of hope and a man of the future,” he said.
Then, as the baton of the presidency was passed from Peres to Rivlin, Edelstein recited the prayer for the changing of the guard at the Holy Temple: “May love, brotherhood, peace and friendship dwell among us.”
Arab MKs from UAL-Ta’al, Balad and Hadash did not attend President Reuven Rivlin’s inauguration on Thursday, leading some Likud MKs to accuse them of boycotting the Knesset in protest against Operation Protective Edge.
However, MK Masud Gnaim (UAL-Ta’al) said he stayed home to break the Ramadan fast.
“There wasn’t any coordination between Arab MKs that we wouldn’t come,” Gnaim added.
Arab MK Hana Sweid of Hadash, who is Christian, was unavailable for comment by press time.
A Balad spokesman declined comment as to whether the party’s MKs were boycotting the event.