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Profile: The presidents of Israel

As new Israeli President Reuven Rivlin takes charge, MEE has an in-depth look at his predecessors
Israeli presidential candidates during the election at the Israeli parliament (AA)

Chaim Weizmann (1949-1952)

Chaim Weizmann (AFP)

“A state cannot be created by decree, but by the forces of a people and in the course of generations. Even if all the governments of the world gave us a country, it would only be a gift of words. But if the Jewish people will go build Palestine, the Jewish State will become a reality - a fact.”

Although he missed the first Zionist congress of 1897 as a result of travel problems, Chaim Azriel Weizmann was one of the earliest and most ardent proponents for the creation of Israel.

Born in 1874 in the village of Motal in Belarus, he was directly involved in many of the most pivotal events in the founding of the State of Israel and formed key relationships with British decision makers, including prime minister David Lloyd George and Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, as he lobbied for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the land of historic Palestine.

Politically a centrist, he consciously sided with neither left-wing Labour Zionism or right-wing Revisionist Zionism.

The first president of Israel in 1949, he belonged to no political party.

On Palestinians:

"The poor ignorant fellah [Arabic for peasant] does not worry about politics, but when he is told repeatedly by people in whom he has confidence that his livelihood is in danger of being taken away from him by us, he becomes our mortal enemy. . . The Arab is primitive and believes what he is told."

Yitzhak Ben-Zvi (1952-1963)

Yitzhak Ben-Zvi (AFP)

"In my opinion, as long as we are required to fulfil two important commandments – bringing in our brethren and absorbing them here, and increasing our security independence given the external threats we face – we dare not get dragged into raising our standard of living. I have therefore opposed, on principle, a rise in my salary, in the hope that I would serve as an example to others.”

Unlike Weizmann, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi attended the first Zionist Congress and helped organise the event with founder of modern Zionism Theodore Herzl.

Born in Poltova (in modern day Ukraine) in 1884, Ben-Zvi was involved in the Zionist movement from his earliest years. Among many other activities, he helped form Jewish self-defence groups to protect the Russian Empire’s Jews from anti-semitic pogroms.

As the longest-serving president of Israel, Ben-Zvi remained in the position for over 10 years (up until his death)  and oversaw Israel’s involvement in multiple conflicts, including the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and the Suez crisis.

He was known for his austere lifestyle, living with his family in a wooden hut and fiercely resisting attempts to raise his salary.

Zalman Shazar (1963-1973)

Zalman Shazar (AFP)

A religious Orthodox Jew, in contrast to the secular/atheistic Jewry of David-Ben Gurion and his ilk, Zalman Shazar was famed as a biblical scholar, coming from a traditional Habad Hasidism background in Russia.

In 1969, Zalman Shazar wrote one of 73 goodwill messages sent by world leaders to NASA for the historic first lunar landing of Apollo 11: "From the President of Israel in Jerusalem with hope for abundance of peace so long as the Moon endureth.”

Ephraim Katzir (1973-1978)

Ephraim Katzir (AFP)

“I have had the opportunity to devote much of my life to science. Yet my participation over the years in activities outside science has taught me there is life beyond the laboratory. I have come to understand that if we hope to build a better world, we must be guided by the universal human values that emphasize the kinship of the human race: the sanctity of human life and freedom, peace between nations, honesty and truthfulness, regard for the rights of others, and love of one’s fellows.”

Katzir became the first president of Israel to host an Arab head of state when he met his Egyptian counterpart, Anwar Sadat, at a state visit.

A PhD student in biology, one of his most lasting legacies is as the founder of the Israeli Defence Forces’ science corps.

According to his Guardian obituary, he “deepened understanding of the genetic code and immune responses; pioneered research into poly-amino acids; did seminal work on synthetic protein models; helped develop Copaxone, a drug that combats multiple sclerosis; and invented a naturally dissoluble synthetic fibre for stitching internal wounds. “

He was also the first Israeli to enter the US National Academy of Sciences.

On Palestinians:

"The Zionist dream was not to create a Jewish state in which Arabs are beaten up; our dream was to have a state of which the Jewish people could be proud."

Yitzhak Navon (1978 - 1983)

Yitzhak Navon (AFP)

"It's not that I don't have opinions, rather that I'm paid not to think aloud.”

Navon started his career as a political secretary to Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion and went on to be the only Israeli president to return to politics following his Presidency.

He was one of the few Israeli politicians to publicly call for an inquiry into the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre during which as many 3,500 Palestinians were killed by an Israel-allied Lebanese Maronite militia.

The oldest living former president, he currently serves as chairman of the National Authority for Ladino, the Jerusalem Rubin Academy of Music and Dance, and as honorary chairman of the Abraham Fund for the promotion of coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Israel.

He is a descendent of a long line of Sephardi rabbis, and wrote two musicals based on Sephardic folklore.

Chaim Herzog (1983 - 1993)

Chaim Herzog (AFP)

“I do not bring forgiveness with me, nor forgetfulness. The only ones who can forgive are dead; the living have no right to forget.”

So far the only Israeli president to be born in Ireland, he was also the first to visit the White House and the first to visit West Germany, a controversial move for many Jews who saw the country as still being a hotbed of anti-Semitism.

As Israeli ambassador, he was famous (or infamous) for lambasting and symbolically tearing up UN General Assembly Resolution 3379 which equated Zionism with racism, describing it as “another manifestation of the bitter anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish hatred which animates Arab society”.

Towards the end of his life, he maintained his bitter denunciations of Israel’s enemies, such as labelling Iraq a nest of “world terror”.

Ezer Weizman (1993 - 2000)

Ezer Weizman (AFP)

“I still call myself a hawk. A dove bills and coos, fluttering about in hesitation and uncertainty, while a hawk swoops down, seizes the initiative and takes advantage of changing situations to suit his cause."

Nephew of former President Chaim Weizman, Ezer spent much of his life in the military before becoming known as a dove in later years, to the extent of striking up personal relationships with Anwar Sadat and Yasser Arafat and meeting Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Secretary Nayef Hawatmeh.

He was extremely critical of the rightwards turn in Israeli politics, once describing Benjamin Netanyahu and Yitzhak Shamir as "square heads on the borderline of fascist".

During his last year in office, a police investigation was launched into his acceptance of hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts from a French millionaire friend. Police recommended he not be indicted, because the statute of limitations had run out on charges of fraud and breach of public trust.

On Palestinians:

"Nothing contributes more to defense than peace. Let's try to talk to Arafat. We have one of the best air forces in the world, we have one of the best armies in the world. What the hell are we worried about?"

Moshe Katsav (2000-2007)

Moshe Katsav (AFP)

“I don't think that Iran with a nuclear capability will be just the problem of the State of Israel. This is a matter that concerns the whole world.”

The first Israeli president to stem from the right-wing Likud Party, Katsav’s Presidency ended ingloriously over rape allegations for which he was later sentence to a seven-year jail term.

The fact of his being born in Iran (in Yazd, 1945) arguably shaped much of his views on Israel’s relationship with the country, constantly condemning the nuclear ambitions of the Islamic Republic and warning that it desired to wipe Israel off the map.

Nevertheless, he often claimed to be proud of his Persian heritage and lauded Iranian culture.

On Palestinians:

“The international community and Israel have the same opinion regarding the Hamas government. We don't say we are going to boycott it forever. We say the Hamas government must abide by the obligations the Palestinian Authority has signed.”

Shimon Peres (2007-2014)

Shimon Peres (AFP)

“Look, we have existed for 4,000 years-2,000 years in diaspora, in exile. Nobody in the Middle East speaks their original language but Israel. When we started 64 years ago, we were 650,000 people. So, you know, we are maybe swimming a little bit against the stream, but we continue to swim.”

Peres’ political career spans 66 years, two terms as prime minister, two terms as interim prime minister and five different political parties.

His views have shifted over that time: originally regarded as a hawk and a supporter of the West Bank settlements in the 1970s, he eventually became one of the figureheads of the Oslo Accords and the peace process.

When he hands over to President elect Reuven Rivlin this month, he will be the last of the founding generation of Israel to leave office.

Speaking to the New York Times about his time in power, he said, “Maybe the greatest things I did when I had the lowest title, and maybe when you have the highest title you are prisoner.”

On Palestinians:

“Peace with the Palestinians will open ports of peace all around the Mediterranean. The duty of leaders is to pursue freedom ceaselessly, even in the face of hostility, in the face of doubt and disappointment. Just imagine what could be.”

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