Reuven Rivlin, a former speaker of parliament and an opponent of Palestinian statehood, has been elected president of Israel to succeed Shimon Peres, the nation’s best-known champion of Mideast peacemaking.
The 74-year-old Rivlin, who had Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s endorsement, won 63 votes in the second round of a secret parliamentary vote, prevailing over ex-Finance Minister Meir Sheetrit, who got 53 votes. He was chosen at the end of a race that grew harder to predict after suspicions of financial impropriety forced Labor party lawmaker Benjamin Ben-Eliezer to withdraw last weekend. Ben-Eliezer denied wrongdoing.
Rivlin’s election may deal another blow to peace efforts already reeling from the collapse of U.S.-brokered talks. While the presidency is a non-partisan position, Peres used it as a pulpit to press for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“It’s an amazing change,” said Alon Liel, a former director general of the Foreign Ministry. “Not only is he one of the most prominent one-staters that we have, he is replacing the most prominent two-stater that we have.”
Rivlin advocates a democratic state that would grant citizenship to the Palestinians, Liel said. While the president-elect doesn’t have much direct power, he may influence domestic and international opinion through public appearances, speeches and meetings with foreign dignitaries, he said.
Rivlin has said that if chosen he would serve as a “people’s president” focusing on domestic issues, and avoid taking political stands.
Still, Rivlin was outspoken against Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 when he was the Knesset speaker, a position that traditionally obliges the incumbent to keep clear of partisan disputes.
Born in Jerusalem before the state of Israel was declared, Rivlin earned a law degree from the Hebrew University and is married with four grown children. He is popular among lawmakers in the Knesset and known for his enthusiastic support of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team. Less well known is his 40 years as a vegetarian.
Israel’s president serves for seven years as the country’s official head of state. Along with protocol duties, the president has the power to grant pardons and select which party leader gets first chance to form a new government after elections.
Peres, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for his role in the first Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, assumed the office in 2007 after predecessor Moshe Katsav resigned to fight rape charges of which he was eventually convicted and jailed.
Some in Israel say Peres could have spoken out more forcefully against government policies he found objectionable, as a predecessor, Yitzhak Navon, did in criticizing Israel’s war in Lebanon in the early 1980s. His term ends July 27.
Former Supreme Court Judge Dalia Dorner, ex-Communications Minister and Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik and Nobel Prize-winning chemist Dan Shechtman were eliminated earlier in the day in the first round of voting.
The latest U.S.-backed effort to forge a peace agreement fell apart in April after almost nine months of negotiations. Any effort to resume them has been complicated by the formation of a new Palestinian government backed by Gaza’s Hamas leaders.
To contact the reporter on this story: Alisa Odenheimer in Jerusalem at firstname.lastname@example.org