JERUSALEM – Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shimon Peres ended his term as president of Israel on Thursday -- a man who symbolizes hopes for peace capping a seven-decade public career amid the brutal reality of war. Peres handed the ceremonial but high-profile presidency over to Reuven Rivlin, a legislator from the hawkish Likud Party.
Although the globe-trotting elder statesman has made clear he has no intention to retire, few expect him to hold public office again, after a career that dates back to the 1940s and has seen him occupy almost every major government position in the land.
"I did not imagine that in the last days of my presidency I would be called upon, once more, to comfort bereaved families," Peres, 90, said in his speech at the handover ceremony. He blamed the Islamic militant group Hamas for starting the current war by firing barrages of rockets at Israel, but also emphasized that "Israel is not the enemy of the people of Gaza."
Rivlin's theme was similar: "We are not fighting against the Palestinian people, and we are not at war with Islam," he said. "We are fighting against terrorism." In sharp contrast to Peres, however, Rivlin has long been an opponent of efforts to establish a Palestinian state.
Peres spent the last days of his seven-year term consoling families of soldiers killed in two weeks of fighting. More than 30 have died, along with three civilians on the Israeli side and more than 700 Palestinians, most of them civilians. During his visits, Peres is seen clutching the hands of grieving mothers, wives and siblings, pressing them to remain strong
"On the one hand he feels great satisfaction from having served Israel," said his spokeswoman, Ayelet Frisch. "On the other hand he feels sadness for these days when Israel does not know peace."
Peres once struggled for popularity, widely seen as an opportunistic political operator. Having never served in the army, he lacked the halo that propelled ex-generals like Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon to political heights. Since the 1980s he came to be associated with a single-minded drive to achieve peace with the Arabs that many in Israel considered naive and out of touch with the hostility toward Israel in the region. Undeterred, Peres published books like 1993's "The New Middle East," predicting a near future in which economic mutual interest trump ethnic and religious hatreds.
A longtime leader of the center-left Labor Party, Peres lost elections in 1977, 1981, 1988 and 1996, managing a sort-of tie in 1984, even though under his rival, the incumbent Yitzhak Shamir, Israel's inflation was running around 400 percent and the country was mired in an unpopular war in Lebanon. Considering such electoral futility, it is remarkable that he did serve for three brief terms as prime minister and has also been foreign minister, defense minister and finance minister among many other posts.
Israel's president is meant to serve as a unifying figure and moral compass -- while executive power rests with the prime minister, currently the conservative Benjamin Netanyahu.
From this pulpit position Peres achieved true popularity for the first time, refashioning himself as a grandfatherly figure whose longevity and energy genuinely amazed, and inspiring a certain nostalgia for a simpler time. At international events like the World Economic Forum at Davos, Peres was treated with a near-adulation that no Israeli politician -- and only a handful around the world -- could possibly attain. He even established his own mini-Davos in Jerusalem, an event which managed to attract major business and academic figures each year anew.
He was also a fitting address to many -- in Israel and outside -- who opposed the rightist policies of Netanyahu and treated the presidency as an almost unofficial alternative government, despite the lack of any actual executive power. Peres' pronouncements on major strategic issues and his seemingly content-filled meetings with world leaders were starkly different from anything Israeli presidents had done in the past. This week was no exception, as Peres met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry about the efforts to broker a cease-fire.
He is also credited with restoring dignity to the Israeli presidency after his predecessor, Moshe Katsav, was convicted and jailed for rape.
Rivlin, 74, a stalwart in Netanyahu's Likud Party, has said he will turn the presidency's priorities inward, focusing on domestic issues, such as the rising cost of living and affordable housing. While Rivlin is respected as a champion of civil-rights, he does not support the creation of an independent Palestinian state and has been a longtime supporter of Jewish West Bank settlements.
In an interview with The Associated Press last week, his last granted as president to international media, Peres was defiantly optimistic, forecasting an end to Israel's 47-year occupation of the West Bank and putting his faith in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as a solid partner to secure peace. "I don't think that Israel can or shall remain an occupying force," he said. "There are ups and downs, it takes time, but there is also progress that people don't note."
He said that once out of office, he intends to facilitate investment in education, health care, agriculture and technology throughout the Middle East.
"The president is known all around the world as a man of peace," said Frisch. "A brave man who fights for peace even during the hardest moments."