Herzog pledges to 'calm things' as Israel's 11th president

FILE - In this March 27, 2017 file photo, Isaac Herzog, speaks at the AIPAC Policy Conference 2017 in Washington. Israel's parliament is set to inaugurate Herzog, Wednesday, July 7, 2021, as the nation's president, a largely ceremonial position whose purpose is to forge national unity and serve as the country’s moral compass. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Isaac Herzog pledged to heal deep divisions in Israeli society Wednesday as he took the oath of office to become Israel's 11th president.

With one hand on a Bible before the Knesset — Israel's parliament — Herzog, 60, assumed the largely ceremonial position that is designed to serve as the country's moral compass.

Herzog promised to be “the president of everyone,” adding that the “central expectation” of all Israelis “from me, from all of us, is to lower the tone, to lower the flames, to calm things down.”

“My mission, the mission of my term, is to do everything in order to rebuild hope,” he said in his inauguration speech.

Herzog takes office after a tumultuous period in which Israel went through four deadlocked elections in just two years.

The political turmoil, along with the coronavirus crisis, has deepened tensions between Israel's religious, nationalist right wing and its more secular and dovish left wing, between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority and between secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews. The polarizing rule of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges and often tried to pit segments of the population against one another, added to the fraught environment.

Netanyahu's 12-year rule ended last month after a diverse patchwork of parties spanning Israel's political and ethnic divide formed a new coalition government.

Healing and unity were the main themes of Wednesday's swearing-in ceremony. Military rabbis blew rams' horns, followed by a performance by a children's choir. Those assembled sang Israel's national anthem. Amid applause, Herzog and outgoing president Reuven Rivlin stepped away from the dais together.

“The truth is that I am a little envious of you,” Rivlin said in a letter to Herzog published earlier on Twitter. He called it a "great and wonderful privilege” to be president of all of Israel’s communities — Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, young and old.

Herzog, whose father, Chaim, served as Israel's president in the 1980s, is to hold office for a single seven-year term. Chaim Herzog also served as Israel's ambassador to the United Nations.

The new president's pedigree includes his grandfather, Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog, who was the country's first chief rabbi. His uncle, Abba Eban, served as foreign minister and ambassador to the U.N. and United States.

Herzog was elected to the presidency by the Knesset last month. He had previously served as head of the Labor Party and head of the opposition in parliament. After leaving politics in 2018, he served as head of the Jewish Agency, a nonprofit organization that works closely with the Israeli government to promote Jewish immigration to Israel and to serve Jewish communities overseas.

Taking office at a time of deep divisions in Israeli society, Herzog said upon his election that he intends to be "the president of everyone” and work to preserve Israel's democracy.

While most of the office's function is to receive foreign dignitaries and other ceremonial roles, the president has the power to grant pardons. That could become part of the national agenda if Netanyahu is ultimately convicted.

The president is also responsible for selecting a political party leader to form a governing coalition and serve as prime minister after parliamentary elections — a task Rivlin has done five times while in office, most recently after the March 23 parliamentary election.

Herzog's inauguration comes less than a month after Israel swore in a new government under Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who struck a coalition agreement with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. Netanyahu now serves as opposition leader.