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The World

Peres wins Israeli presidency

After decades in public life and a number of electoral defeats, the 83-year-old gains the largely ceremonial post.

June 14, 2007|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — In six decades in public life, Shimon Peres had led Israel's government three times and held nearly every senior post but never won a national election, failing so often that he was branded an "accomplished loser." On Wednesday, the country's most senior statesman finally got his due.

By a vote of 86 to 23, parliament elected him over two rivals to the largely ceremonial job of president.

"No matter how much I thought of this, I was caught unprepared," the 83-year-old Peres told parliament in an emotional acceptance speech.

He promised to play a "spiritual role" as a unifier and speak "in a strong voice to expel despair from our midst."

"The president's residence will be an open house for all citizens, attentive to the weak, open to the Jewish nation abroad and a warm house for Israeli Arabs," he said.

The outcome was a relief for many Israelis who are eager to see a measure of gravitas restored to an office tainted by scandal involving the two previous presidents.

It was especially good news for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who had campaigned hard for his deputy prime minister and staked the dwindling prestige of his government on the outcome.

Olmert is struggling to stay in office after a damaging report by an official panel that cited his leadership failures during last summer's inconclusive cross-border war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. Peres' elevation to the presidency will help Olmert by opening a key position in his coalition government that he can barter for political support.

At a caucus of the centrist Kadima party before the vote, Olmert said, "If we had to make a list that summarizes the qualities, achievements and profile of the ideal candidate for this position, one would take the life story of Shimon Peres to serve as a model."

Peres, who appeared nervous at the party meeting, joked that there was just one thing he could do in light of all his defeats: pray until the vote.

As a Labor Party stalwart, Peres had been considered a shoo-in to win the presidency in 2000, when Ezer Weizman resigned under pressure because of allegations that he had failed to report large sums of money given to him by a billionaire friend. But Peres lost in a stunning upset to Moshe Katsav, a back-bencher of the right-wing Likud Party.

Katsav stepped aside in January, with six months left in his term, to face allegations that he had raped or sexually assaulted four female employees. Israel's attorney general has said he is seeking an indictment in the case.

Israel's parliament speaker, Dalia Itzik, has been serving as acting president.

Peres received 58 votes in the first round of voting Wednesday, three short of a majority. Reuven Rivlin, a former parliament speaker with the right-wing Likud Party, got 37 votes, and lawmaker Colette Avital of the left-leaning Labor Party got 21.

Avital, seeking to become Israel's first elected female president, dropped out and threw her support to Peres. Shortly afterward, Rivlin withdrew his candidacy and asked the parliament to unanimously back Peres. Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, a harsh critic of the dovish Peres, said his party would back him.

That left Peres alone in the second round, with lawmakers voting yes or no.

He takes office July 15 for a seven-year term as Israel's ninth president since its independence in 1948.

Born in 1923 in Poland, Peres is one of Israel's oldest founding fathers. He was the chief architect of its military-industrial complex, including its nuclear weapons program, and a driving force behind the 1993 Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians, a role that earned him a share of the Nobel Peace Prize with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, both now deceased.

Peres was a top aide to Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. He has been a member of parliament since 1959 and has served as minister of defense, finance and foreign affairs.

He served three times as prime minister -- first in the 1970s in a caretaker role and then in the 1980s under a rotation agreement with Yitzhak Shamir after a general election failed to produce a clear winner. He ran the government again in the mid-1990s after Rabin was assassinated, all as a member of Labor.

He quit Labor after losing the party leadership in 2005. He joined the Kadima party, which was founded that year by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Peres lost repeatedly in his bids for outright election to the office. The wit and elegance that made him a favorite among foreign dignitaries made little impression on Israeli voters, who prefer earthier politicians and military heroes. Peres never served in the armed forces.

Political analysts said the octogenarian finally broke his losing streak because he was a sentimental choice among his fellow lawmakers and his age and experience outweighed partisan considerations.

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boudreaux@latimes.com

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