Former Labor party leader Isaac Herzog took office on Wednesday as Israel’s 11th president, succeeding Reuven Rivlin.
Herzog took his oath of office at a festive ceremony in the Knesset to cries of “long live [the president]” from its lawmakers. He kicked off his seven-year term with a pledge to serve as a “president for all” and work to tone down the country’s divisive rhetoric.
In his inauguration speech, the new president — who exerts little power, with the prime minister wielding executive authority — warned that Israel’s “common ethos and shared values are more fragile than ever.”
“Baseless hatred, polarization and division are exacting a very heavy price… the heaviest price is the erosion of our national resilience,” said Herzog.
“My mission, the goal of my presidency, is to do everything to rebuild hope,” he added.
During his speech, Herzog also stressed the country’s obligation toward its minorities, urging the government to battle crime in Arab communities. He also vowed to staunchly defend Israel’s military record to the international community.
“As a Jewish and democratic state, we must do everything to ensure the integration of the minorities who live among us. We must do everything to reduce every serious phenomenon, such as the terrible and murderous violence in Arab communities, and reduce the gaps,” said Herzog.
He was sworn in on a 107-year-old Bible that has a long history in his family — the same one that his father, Chaim Herzog, used when he was sworn in as president in 1983. The Bible survived both world wars and was given to his grandmother by her father on the eve of her wedding.
The ceremony also included a blowing of shofars, and the president received a standing ovation following his speech.
הנשיא ה 11 יצחק הרצוג יישבע היום אמונים על ספר תנ"ך בן מעל 107 שנה שעליו נשבע גם אביו ואשר שרד את מלחמות העולם הראשונה והשנייה. הספר ניתן במתנה לסבתו הרבנית שרה הרצוג על ידי אביה הרב הילמן שהיה רבה הראשי של גלזגו ערב חתונתה לרב אייזיק הרצוג pic.twitter.com/IHe65eCRYm
— Itamar Eichner (@itamareichner) July 7, 2021
In his parting speech in parliament following his successor’s swearing-in, Rivlin urged Israelis to come together and overcome their political and religious differences, while stressing the importance of preserving Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
“The Jewish state is not something to be taken for granted. A democratic state is not something to be taken for granted. And there will be no Israel if it is not democratic and Jewish, Jewish and democratic, in the same breath,” said the outgoing president.
“We will prevail only if we know how to embrace complexity and reject the simplicity that is always so tempting… if we know how to hold that tension, finding within it the balances and compromises. Only then will we be able to preserve this miracle, our home,” he added.
Rivlin also urged engagement with Israel’s regional partners on security, economic and political matters and find solutions related to water, food and climate change. He argued that Jewish-Arab coexistence in Israel could pave the way for greater engagement in the region.
“I believe that if we are able to live here together, Jews and Arabs, we will find the way to live together between the Jordan River and the sea, and across the whole region.”
Rivlin urged the next generation of Israelis to “continue to innovate. If something isn’t working – change it. Don’t take things for granted because of the simple fact that the State of Israel isn’t to be taken for granted. It is a miracle, and miracles must be jealously guarded.”
“I was nine years old when the State of Israel was established. I saw the Israeli flag, blue and white, flying on the flagpole then. For me, the State of Israel will never be something I take for granted. Long live the eleventh president of the State of Israel. Long live the State of Israel,” he concluded, receiving a standing ovation.
Following a toast to the president at the Knesset, Herzog headed over to the President’s Residence for a handover ceremony with Rivlin.
“I have no doubt that you are the right man, in the right place, at the right time,” Rivlin told Herzog at the President’s Residence.
Waiting for Herzog on his desk in the president’s office will be a personal letter from Rivlin.
“The truth is I am a little envious of you. In a short time you will discover the tremendous privilege that has fallen to you,” Rivlin wrote in the missive.
“In the coming seven years you will meet the men and women who are citizens of Israel. I am already telling you, you will want to hug them, all of them. You will want to cry with them, and to laugh with them. To be excited with them,” Rivlin wrote.
Echoing themes he expressed in a 2015 speech warning against the deterioration of unity in Israeli society, Rivlin wrote: “Among the tribes, in the shadow of the controversies and rifts, you will find brave people who do not talk about the ‘together’, they just live it. Day to day and hour by hour. In their homes, those on the right and the left, Jews and Arabs, veteran [citizens] and new immigrants, religious and traditional, young and old. People of all faiths, sectors and ethnicities. All of them, Israelis. Beautiful, enlightening, and generous. And what a heart they have, beyond words.”
Rivlin warned his successor of the emotional toll too, recalling how his sleep was sometimes disturbed by thoughts of those he met who were facing challenges in one form or another.
“You will be surprised. Fall in love. Be proud. Take things to heart,” Rivlin wrote.
“Many times, on journeys, in meetings, I thought to myself the title ‘Citizen Number One’ was born simply because this is the number one people. Today I am sure,” Rivlin concluded.
Herzog, a former Jewish Agency chairman and Labor party leader, won more votes in the Knesset — — 87 out of 120 — in the election in early June than any presidential candidate in the country’s history. Miriam Peretz, a social activist and Israel Prize-winning educator who lost two soldier sons in Israel’s wars, was backed by 26 lawmakers in the secret ballot.
Ahead of the ceremony, Herzog prayed at the Western Wall on Tuesday and in the note he left in the cracks of the wall, he wrote that he will devote himself to “unity among our people and true love for Israel.”
Herzog, who was opposition leader and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief opponent in the 2015 general elections, said he hoped “to be able to work with any government and every prime minister.”
Israel’s president is largely ceremonial but plays a key role in deciding who gets the mandate to form a government following elections. The president also has the power to pardon people and grant clemency.
In the run-up to June’s vote, Herzog refused to say whether he would consider pardoning Netanyahu, who is on trial in three corruption cases.
An attorney by profession at one of the country’s top firms (which was founded by his father), Herzog has a family history that is as close as one comes to Israeli royalty.
He is the grandson of Israel’s first Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Isaac Herzog, for whom he is named, and the son of former IDF major general and then president Chaim Herzog. His brother Michael is a retired IDF brigadier general. His aunt Suzy was the wife of former foreign minister Abba Eban.
During his term in office, Rivlin consistently scored high public approval ratings, with his determination to represent the broad spectrum of Israeli communities and his obvious compassion resonating with the public.
Earlier on Wednesday, a bust of Rivlin was unveiled in the statue garden of the president’s official residence. The sculpture was erected Monday alongside those of Rivlin’s predecessors, two days before he completed his seven-year term.
On a plaque beneath the bust is a quote from Rivlin: “Without the ability to listen, there is no ability to learn. Without the ability to learn, there is no ability to repair.”
Agencies contributed to this report.