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Those who advocate having the head of state elected by the people and not by the Knesset must have felt vindicated at President Shimon Peres's inauguration on Sunday when they saw the empty seats in the Knesset plenum and the overflow in the visitors' gallery. An ebullient Peres, 83, was sworn in as Israel's ninth president.
Ushers had to bring in extra seats for the invitees, who flocked in from across the country for the ceremony.
Peres's address at the induction ceremony
Shimon Peres, a life
The section reserved for former MKs was crowded, but current lawmakers, particularly Arab legislators, were less eager to share the glory of the nation's most veteran parliamentarian.
Peres was certainly not the oldest person present.
Among his seniors were former president Ephraim Katzir and ex-Agudat Israel MK Menahem Porush, both 91, and former president Yitzhak Navon, 86.
The mood was generally enthusiastic.
"At long last," said former Labor Party minister Moshe Shahal, to almost everyone he greeted.
"It's a great day for Israel - for everyone in the country," said public relations expert Ran Rahav.
Uri Savir, one of Peres's protÃ©gÃ©s, said that seven years ago, he'd thought that Peres had a chance, "but this time, I was sure."
Renowned sexologist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, who is in Israel making a documentary about Beduin family life, declared that Peres would be a wonderful president.
Former MK Pnina Rosenblum said that she was very happy that Peres was president. "It's an honor for all of us. I'm proud that we have a president who is so much at home with all sectors of the population," she said.
World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder said he was extremely excited. "It's an event I never expected to see," he confessed.
Arye Shumer, who was director-general of Beit Hanassi during Ezer Weizman's tenure, predicted that Peres would be "an excellent president" who would breathe a fresh spirit into the president's residence and the nation.
"I'm not worried about him interfering with politics. Whoever believes that he will is mistaken. I think he's going to make a very important contribution in his new position," Shumer said.
Greek Catholic Archbishop Elias Chacour lauded Peres as "a man of vision" and voiced the hope that Peres would realize his dream for peace in the Middle East, "so that people can respect each other and coexist in harmony."
Chacour characterized Peres as "a very special man" who he was sure would influence the authorities to make life easier for Christian clergy to come to Israel to work among their own people.
In his inaugural address, Peres reviewed his life and the history of Israel with which it has been inextricably intertwined.
He spoke of the trust which had been placed in him, and how appreciative he was.
He reminded his audience and those Israelis listening to him via the electronic media that despite their differences, they must always remember that they are the sons and daughters of one Land of Israel. "We do not have and we are not looking for another country," he said.
Peres admitted to a certain sadness at parting from the Knesset, of which he has been a member for more than half his lifetime.
Speaking of the Knesset, he said that he loved "its deafening volume, the great debates, the soul-reaching tumults and the unexpected reconciliations."
He was no longer the emissary of a party, he said, but a trustee of the nation, of all the citizens of the state. "From this moment, I will be the voice and the address for every citizen of the state of Israel, for every infant and child, women and men, for the poor and the elderly. My home will be open to all - my hands will be extended to each and every one."
Recalling his relationship with David Ben-Gurion, Peres described him as "the greatest Jew I have ever known."
From Ben-Gurion he learned that in war, there is no choice - one must triumph. "And for victory, courageous people and appropriate tools are necessary. However, when an opportunity for peace is created, it must not be missed," he said.
Detailing Israel's many achievements over six decades, Peres said that although his heart was proud, he could not ignore the heavy price, the loss of life and limb.
"Without the self-sacrifice shown by the Israel Defense Forces, we would not have reached this stage. Even today, the release of the three kidnapped soldiers - Gilad Schalit, Udi Goldwasser, Eldad Regev - is at the top of our agenda. They are our sons, and we will not rest until we see them again at home, in their homes, our home."
The families of the three, as well as those of other captured, missing in action and fallen soldiers were present to hear him.
He said he would call on the religious and secular public to find, that which is common between them. He would also call on the Palestinians and on the Arab countries to participate in the great journey across a world built on intellect, and not only on land.
As for Israel's priorities, Peres listed Jerusalem, the Negev, the Galilee and the "Valley of Peace."
He envisaged the Negev as enabling Israel to harness the sun's energy, to create clean electricity for the state, to desalinate water from the sea and underground ancient water and to form common ground with the Jordanians, the Egyptians and the Palestinians.
The Galilee, with its population mix of Jews and Arabs, provided an opportunity to create true equality for all, he said, and predicted that the day would come when Lebanon would be free of those who seek to destroy it and Syria would free it of its bonds, and there would be peace from the north.
Peres said the Valley of Peace, extending along the border between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians could become a haven of cooperation. All three had already agreed to the project, he said as he spelled out the ecological, tourist and economic benefits of such a partnership.
Peres added that he intended to devote himself to promoting relations between Israel and the Diaspora by adding an intellectual and creative dimension, while simultaneously encouraging relations with Arab countries. "Permit me to remain an optimist," he concluded. "Permit me to be a dreamer of his people."
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