Israel parliament elects president to succeed Peres

JERUSALEM - Israel's parliament will elect the country's 10th head of state on Tuesday, choosing between five candidates hoping to replace Shimon Peres whose presidential term in office ends in July.

None of the five comes even close to the stature of Peres, whose charisma and popularity enabled him to transcend the largely ceremonial position of the presidency and use it to promote a political message in favour of peace. Members of Israel's 120-seat Knesset, or parliament, will gather at 11:00 am (0800 GMT) for a special session of the plenum at which they will begin voting to choose a successor to Peres, whose last day in office is July 27.

An initial list of six candidates, three of them parliamentarians, fell to five over the weekend when Labour's Binyamin Ben Eliezer withdrew his name after police launched an investigation into alleged financial irregularities. Although no clear favourite has emerged, the likely winner is former parliamentary speaker Reuven Rivlin, a veteran member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rightwing Likud Party although pundits have warned there could be surprises in store.

The other four candidates are Meir Sheetrit from the centrist HaTnuah party; Dalia Itzik, who in 2006 became the first woman speaker of the Knesset; retired Supreme Court justice Dalia Dorner and chemistry Nobel Laureate Dan Shechtman. With none of the five expected to garner the 61 votes required to win outright, there is likely to be a run-off which will be held during the afternoon with final results expected by the evening.

Although commentators were unanimous that Rivlin would be in the runoff vote, it was unclear who he would be facing, with army radio suggesting the two likely candidates would be Dorner and Itzik. Shechtman, who emerged as the public's second favourite candidate for president after Rivlin in a Haaretz poll published late last month, is ranked as least favourite in Tuesday's race with no public show of support among MPs, the radio said.

The last surviving member of Israel's founding fathers, Peres has spent seven years serving as Israel's head of state and is still going strong with his term in office due to end just a week shy of his 91st birthday. He enjoys huge popularity among Israelis, with a Channel 2 television poll finding that nearly two thirds of the public had wanted him to remain in his post. Peres' departure from office is likely to switch the presidency's focus from international affairs to more domestic matters, commentators say.

So far, all the candidates have played the card of "national unity", pledging to respect the essentially apolitical nature of the role, which was so elegantly avoided by Peres. Peres's open engagement with the question of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often put him on a direct collision course with Netanyahu, and he also spoke out about Israel's often tense relations with Washington and on the Iranian nuclear threat.

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Aaj Kal