(photo credit: AP)
President Shimon Peres, Israel's eldest statesman known for his vision of "a new Middle East," proclaimed in his inaugural speech in the Knesset on Sunday that he was leaving divisive politics after six decades to devote himself "to unifying the nation."
But, the 83-year-old declared defiantly, he would not shy away from using the presidency to promote peace in the region.
"When the opportunity for peace is created, it must not be missed," Peres told a packed house after taking the oath of office. "[The president] must encourage peace processes. At home. With our neighbors. In the entire region."
Five Arab MKs chose to attend a poetry reading in Haifa by Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish instead of the inauguration, but the gallery was full of VIPs and invited guests.
The ceremony ushering in Peres as the country's ninth president capped a momentous career that included international acclaim and a Nobel Peace Prize but also a string of embarrassing electoral defeats - including his last presidential race against Moshe Katsav seven years ago.
In a half-hour interview with the Associated Press on the day of his inauguration, Peres pledged to fight poverty and global warming and even expressed the hope of making peace with Iran.
"After such a long career, let me just say something: My appetite to manage is over. My inclination to dream and to envisage is greater," he said, looking vigorous and discounting age as a factor that could slow him down.
He wasted no time in getting down to business, moving into Beit Hanassi a day later. He told staff at the presidential residence: "Remember, we are the servants of the people, and not their masters."
He then began a flurry of diplomatic meetings, most notably welcoming EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana on Wednesday. Peres told him that those residents of Gaza who voted Hamas into power must not be allowed to determine the future of the whole Palestinian people.
He commended Solana for the work he has done over the years to try to bring peace to the region and argued that despite the current difficulties, there are "new opportunities."
"Europe can play a major role," he said.
Solana concurred, saying he hoped that the peace that they had discussed "so many times together" would one day become a reality. Then, addressing Peres directly, he said: "Mr. President and my dear friend, it is a moving moment to see you here."
Solana was plainly confident that as president Peres would be able to do much more to advance the peace process than anyone else.
Over the past few decades, indeed, foreign dignitaries have made a point of meeting with Peres, regardless of his political rank at the time. He was considered Israel's man of stature and status, and his title was simply incidental. What mattered was his wisdom and his opinion, which were much more appreciated abroad than at home.
Now that he's president, it goes without saying that every visitor is seeking an audience. Among those who got to see him this week were Israel's Ambassador to the UN Dan Gillerman, World Jewish Congress president Ron Lauder, Pierre Besnainou, the immediate past president of the European Jewish Congress, Iceland's Foreign Minister Ingibjorg Solrun Gisladottir and China's special envoy to the Middle East Sun Bigan.
Next week's visitors will include former British prime minister Tony Blair in his new role as the Quartet's Middle East peace envoy and Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdul Ilah al-Khatib, who are heading an Arab League delegation to discuss a peace plan that calls for a withdrawal from lands captured in 1967 and the creation of a Palestinian state in return for full Arab recognition of Israel.
This last visit might partly explain what prompted Peres to make his controversial comments about withdrawal in the AP interview, in which he said Israel would have to withdraw from significant pieces of territory captured in the 1967 Six Day War - a position still opposed by large parts of the public.
"We have to get rid of the territories," he said, insisting that this is the majority view in Israel today.
And he said he would use the presidency to "encourage" the government to take steps for peace, offer advice to the nation's leaders and "speak to the people."
"In public life, you don't use swords. You use words. You talk to people. You have dialogue. That's what I'm going to do. I don't have any force but the force of my conviction," he said.
While many on the Right were offended by his statements and thought it inappropriate coming from a figure who has declared his intention to become the unifying force of the nation, some were placated on Monday evening when Peres attended a memorial for Revisionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the sworn rival of Peres's mentor David Ben-Gurion, who during his period as the country's first prime minister would not allow Jabotinsky's remains to be brought here from New York for burial.
It was prime minister Levi Eshkol who in 1965 took the decision to reinter Jabotinsky and his wife in Jerusalem's Mt. Herzl Cemetery, where many of the leaders of the nation are buried.
Peres recalled that he had then been Eshkol's deputy in the Defense Ministry, yet despite his allegiance to Ben-Gurion, had helped Eshkol to reach a decision which Peres considered to be a form of national reconciliation to heal the deep rifts in the population.
Peres spoke of Jabotinsky as one of the great fathers of Zionism - a stormy but multitalented figure as a writer, poet, translator, orator, dreamer and warrior, a charismatic leader and a man of vision.
With historical hindsight, Peres reached the conclusion that there were fewer differences between Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky than there appeared to be in the 1920s and 1930s.
Both saw the need to establish a fighting force so that Israel could defend itself, he said. Ben-Gurion had even been a soldier in the Jewish Legion created by Jabotinsky, to whom Peres gave credit for establishing the foundation for a professional, permanent army to defend the Zionist enterprise.
Another point of agreement, as cited by Peres, was their shared belief in equality for the Arab population. Where they differed was in their territorial concepts. While Jabotinsky advocated a greater Israel on both sides of the Jordan River, Ben-Gurion preferred partition to ensure a Jewish state.
They also agreed, said Peres, that the state must have a Jewish majority.
In his address to the Knesset, Peres said he had learned from Ben-Gurion that in war there is no choice. One must triumph. And for victory, courageous people and appropriate tools are necessary. However, when the opportunity for peace is created, he said, it must not be missed.
Peres does not want Abba Eban's famous aphorism that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity to apply to the Israelis as well. For that reason, he has often gone out on a limb, if not further, to try to foster peace.
Born in Poland, Peres immigrated before statehood and rose through the ranks of the Labor Party as an aide to Ben-Gurion. He is credited with developing the country's nuclear program and building up the army in the 1950s. He has held almost every top government post, including three stints as prime minister.
As foreign minister, he played a key role in the Oslo Accords - earning him the Nobel Peace Prize with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat in 1994, and unprecedented stature abroad as a revered statesman. He coined the phrase, "a new Middle East" when peace with the Palestinians appeared to be close. Though that optimistic vision never materialized, Peres has not lost his idealism.
Peres said he would even be willing to meet a president of Iran if it would advance the cause of peace, but not the current leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has repeatedly called for Israel's elimination.
This week, he succeeded an Iranian immigrant, Moshe Katsav, as president.
Katsav left office in a cloud of scandal after four former female employees accused him of a series of sex crimes, and a plea bargain he reached with Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz is currently being contested in the High Court of Justice.
Peres said he was confident that the presidency had not been damaged by the Katsav scandal. "The accusations are against a person," not the institution, he said.
Before becoming president, Peres was an MK for 48 years, making him the longest-serving parliamentarian. But until last month, he had never actually won a national election outright.
"I don't think there was any person who was so much attacked and criticized in these last 60 years like myself. But the fact is that after 60 years of criticism, of terrible remarks, they decided to elect me as the president," Peres told AP. "I didn't expect it."
He said "a very deep belief in what I'm doing" had kept him going all this time. "I am willing and I think I have to contribute to my country. For me, my country is like my family."
As if to underscore the point, Peres's baby great-granddaughter cried at the beginning of his address to the Knesset on Sunday, drawing smiles from the hundreds of visitors as her mother carried her out.
It was a short time later that he summed up his worldview, in what was quintessential Peres:
"Permit me to remain an optimist," he said. "Permit me to be a dreamer of my people. Permit me to present the sunny side of our state. And also, if sometimes the atmosphere is autumnal, and also if today, the day seems suddenly gray, the president whom you have chosen will never tire of encouraging, awakening and reminding - because spring is waiting for us at the threshold. The spring will definitely come!"
AP contributed to this report.
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