JERUSALEM, Aug. 1 (JTA) — Israel’s new president has vowed to pursue tolerance and national unity.
Moshe Katsav made the promise during his inaugural speech at a Knesset ceremony Tuesday evening, when he became Israel’s eighth president.
After the Likud Party legislator took the oath of office, an honor guard blew on rams’ horns and legislators called out, “Long live the new president.”
In a secret parliamentary vote the previous day, Katsav beat the odds- on favorite, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former Labor Prime Minister Shimon Peres.
Katsav is the first Likud candidate to be elected Israel’s head of state.
After the election, Katsav, 55, promised he was “locking up” his conservative political views during his single, seven-year term, saying he would instead focus on the internal problems confronting Israeli society.
At the swearing-in ceremony, Katsav, who is religiously observant, offered a prayer seeking guidance.
“I ask you, God of Israel, to make me succeed in my role,” Katsav said at the Knesset ceremony.
“I will do everything to justify your trust in me, and I accept my duty with humility.”
The new president also noted his own humble beginnings as a child who immigrated with his family to Israel from Iran.
Katsav spent his first few years in Israel in the transit camps set up for the absorption of Jews who immigrated from mainly Arab countries during the 1950s.
Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg hailed Katsav’s election as proof that anyone, from any means or background, could attain the position of “Israel’s No. 1 citizen.”
Burg also advised Katsav to rise above the political debate.
Katsav’s promise to help nurture a “quieter, calmer” Israel contrasted with the more turbulent dynamic that characterized the presidency of his predecessor, Ezer Weizman.
Weizman, who stepped down three years before his second five-year term was to end, resigned three months after police probing his financial affairs recommended that he not be charged — but at the same time gave him a less-than-blemish-free verdict.
A veteran public figure who held key posts in the military and politics before becoming president, Weizman served as president during a period that spanned both left- and right-wing governments.
The outspoken Weizman — the nephew of Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann — has frequently been a counterbalance to government policy, pushing for progress when the peace process faltered and urging a slowdown during waves of terrorist attacks.
In an emotional speech at Tuesday’s ceremony, Weizman made an appeal to the politically divided Knesset not to abandon the pursuit of peace, “no matter how complicated or difficult it may be.”
During his speech, Weizman offered some words of advice to Katsav.
“Try not to get into trouble. It’s not easy, but perhaps you were elected because your nature is different from mine.”
Some 1,200 people participated in the swearing-in ceremony, including Supreme Court justices, diplomats, former lawmakers and top military and police officials.
Notably absent was Peres.
Considered the popular favorite for the post, Peres was openly stunned following his defeat.
In an Israel Radio interview on Tuesday, Peres acknowledged disappointment, but said he “blamed no one” for it.
Peres, who remained on as regional development minister in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Ehud Barak, said he preferred not to dwell in the past, but to look forward to the future.
Peres’ defeat was widely seen as a political slap in the face to Barak, who is struggling to hold on to power in the face of an opposition onslaught against his peace policies.
Peres said Tuesday that Barak must spend the next three months, as the Knesset goes into a summer recess, to try to save his government and the peace process.
“Three months is a very short period of time, and if I can contribute even one ounce of support to the peace process, in my eyes it is 1,000 times more important than being bitter or looking for the guilty,” said Peres, an architect of the Oslo accords.
“I see this as the moment of truth for the country.”