Israeli lawmakers elect far-right Likud member Reuven Rivlin president
Likud party's Reuven Rivlin, who will succeed Shimon Peres, is a firm opponent of Palestinian statehood and backer of Jewish settlements
Israel's parliament yesterday elected Reuven Rivlin, a far-right member of the ruling Likud party, to be the nation's 10th president when Shimon Peres steps down next month.
Known for his affable character and quirky sense of humour, the 74-year-old former parliamentary speaker will take over as head of state when Peres retires at the end of July, drawing a line under what many regard as a golden age of the presidency.
A lawyer by profession, Rivlin has won widespread support from across the political spectrum for his determined defence of democracy and civil rights.
But his political outlook is diametrically opposed to that of Peres, being a firm opponent of a Palestinian state and a keen backer of Jewish settlements.
And he will have a tough act to follow, with Peres' charisma and global standing enabling him to transcend the largely ceremonial position of the presidency and use it to promote a political message of peace.
Announcing the results of a run-off vote, parliamentary speaker Yuli Edelstein said Rivlin had defeated his centrist challenger Meir Sheetrit by 63 votes to 53 in a secret ballot of the Knesset's 120 lawmakers.
The other three candidates - former politician Dalia Itzik, retired Supreme Court justice Dalia Dorner and chemistry Nobel laureate Dan Shechtman - were all eliminated in the first round of voting.
As the portly, white-haired Rivlin passed through the corridors of the Knesset, members of parliament and well-wishers patted him on the back.
In a televised joint news conference, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose bitter dislike of Rivlin made headlines in the weeks running up to the vote, offered the incoming president his congratulations.
"I want to wish you great success," said the prime minister, who had only begrudgingly backed his party's candidate at the 11th hour after his well-publicised and frantic efforts to find an alternative failed.
"You have two main missions facing you: to unite all the people ... and to represent Israel to the world," he said.
In an emotional acceptance speech punctuated by puns, but delivered in a voice which at times broke with emotion, Rivlin said he was no longer a man of politics but of the people.
"I am no longer party man but a man of all the people," he said before joining in a champagne toast led by the speaker.
Congratulations poured in.
"Today is a festive day," said a beaming Naftali Bennett, who is head of the far-right Jewish Home party and ideologically very close to Rivlin.
"The Knesset elected the most worthy candidate today," agreed Deputy Defence Minister Danny Danon, also from Likud's far-right flank, describing Rivlin as "a true Zionist [and] Jerusalem's biggest supporter".
But many Israeli commentators were sanguine about Rivlin's political bent and what he would use the presidency to try to achieve.
"Rivlin is far to the right of the clear Israeli consensus, he is opposed to the two-state solution, he is an out-and-out supporter of the settlement enterprise on both sides of the separation fence," commentator Ben Caspit wrote in Maariv yesterday.
Peres, the last surviving member of Israel's founding fathers, is due to wrap up his seven-year term at the end of July, just a week shy of his 91st birthday.