JERUSALEM – A nasty race to succeed Shimon Peres as Israel's head of state is finally coming to an end, with five candidates facing off in parliament this week to become the country's next president.
Israeli lawmakers in the 120-member Knesset are to elect a president to replace Peres in a secret ballot on Tuesday. Officially, the presidency is a largely ceremonial office. But Peres, a former prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has risen above the post and turned it into a position with international gravitas.
Peres restored honor to the presidency after replacing disgraced politician Moshe Katsav, who was forced to leave office in 2007 to face sex-crimes allegations and who was later convicted of rape.
Peres, 90, quickly became one of the country's most popular figures, finally winning the public adoration that eluded him for most of his seven-decade career. He also was warmly welcomed throughout the world.
The presidency is typically filled by a respected elder statesman who is expected to rise above politics and serve as a moral compass for the country, and whoever is elected likely will pale in comparison to Peres.
But the campaign also will be remembered for its ugly mudslinging. Candidates have complained about private investigators digging into their personal histories, and two campaigns were derailed by scandals.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's public standing also has taken a hit due to his attempts to shape the race.
Netanyahu repeatedly tried to block the candidacy of Reuven Rivlin, a former speaker of parliament and his rival in the ruling Likud Party. Most opinion polls show the 74-year-old Rivlin as the public's preferred candidate.
Netanyahu unsuccessfully tried to persuade other candidates to run against Rivlin, including former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky and Nobel peace laureate Elie Wiesel, who is not even Israeli. At one point, he even floated the idea of annulling the position altogether. Ultimately, he backed down and gave his support to Rivlin.
"Shimon Peres was an important president due to his special status in capitals around the world and because of the dignity that he restored at home in the aftermath of the Katsav affair," columnist Nahum Barnea wrote Sunday. "Peres's gravitas added an artificial importance and drama to the question of his successor. Netanyahu's miserable intervention inflated the importance even further. But we need to realize that the next president isn't going to be Peres."
Rivlin says his popularity and ability to connect to all elements of Israeli society make him most suitable for the role. Unlike the globe-trotting Peres, he says his focus will be domestic. However, his hard-line views toward the Palestinian conflict could be a liability. Rivlin opposes creation of a Palestinian state, a position supported by the international community and even Netanyahu.
Rivlin's candidacy appeared to get a boost over the weekend when a main competitor, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, was forced to pull out of the race. Ben-Eliezer, a former defense minister and ex-leader of the Labor Party, was questioned by police on Friday about how he funded his purchase of a $2.5 million luxury apartment. Ben-Eliezer angrily called the last-minute investigation a "targeted hit."
Earlier, another leading candidate, Likud Cabinet minister Silvan Shalom, decided not to run after a former aide accused him of sexual assault. Shalom denied the accusations, and an investigation was eventually closed without charges.
The other politicians in the race include Meir Sheetrit, a longtime lawmaker and former Cabinet minister; Dalia Itzik, another former speaker of parliament. Two other candidates are considered to be long shots: Dan Shechtman, a professor who won the 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and Dalia Dorner, a retired Supreme Court justice.
Tuesday's vote takes place by secret ballot among parliament's 120 members. None of the candidates are expected to win an outright majority in the first round of voting, forcing a second round between the two top vote getters.
Among the public, Rivlin appears to have the most support. A Dialog poll, conducted for the daily newspaper Haaretz, showed that 31 percent of Israelis would like him to be their next president. He was followed by Shechtman at 22 percent and Dorner at 11 percent.
The poll surveyed 503 Israelis and had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.
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