- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 14, 2007

JERUSALEM — Elder statesman Shimon Peres was elected Israel“s ninth president yesterday, capping a campaign to extend his six-decade political career in a race marred by rape accusations against the sitting president.

Mr. Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and member of the ruling Kadima party, won the support of 86 of parliament”s 120 members in a second round of voting in which he stood alone, parliament Speaker Dalia Itzik said. His two rivals, Reuven Rivlin of the hawkish Likud and Colette Avital of the centrist Labor, withdrew from the race after Mr. Peres seized a commanding lead in the first round.

Mr. Peres, 83, who has held all of Israel“s top civilian posts, will be sworn in July 15 for a seven-year term.

In a speech to lawmakers after his victory, Mr. Peres said he saw his new role as a unifier of Israel“s fractured society.

“The president”s role is not to deal with politics and partisanship, but to represent what unites us in a strong voice,” he said.

Mr. Peres had been seen as a shoo-in to win the post in 2000 — only to lose in a stunning upset to Moshe Katsav, a political backbencher who had the blessing of a prominent rabbi.

The office of the president, conceived as a ceremonial post held by a prominent statesman or thinker, has been tainted by accusations that Mr. Katsav raped or otherwise sexually assaulted four female employees. Mr. Katsav has not been charged, pending a final hearing before Israel“s attorney general, but has stepped down temporarily to fight the accusations.

Israelis hope that Mr. Peres, with his international reputation, will be able to restore the stature of the position.

Speaking at parliament ahead of the vote, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Kadima said “the history, actions and contributions of Shimon Peres to the state of Israel” made him “a model” for the ideal presidential candidate.

A top aide to Israel“s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, Mr. Peres was elected to parliament in 1959, then held a series of top posts, including the prime ministership, as well as minister of defense, finance and foreign affairs.

He was never elected prime minister outright, serving once in a caretaker role in the 1970s, and once in the 1980s under a rotation agreement with political opponent Yitzhak Shamir after a general election failed to produce a clear winner. He served as prime minister again in the 1990s after Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist.

The vote for president was called after former Prime Minister Ehud Barak won the leadership of the Labor Party in a dramatic political comeback. Tossed out of office six years ago in a humiliating election defeat, Mr. Barak beat former navy commander Ami Ayalon by more than three percentage points, party officials said yesterday.

Mr. Barak now begins the race for the real prize: a return to the nation”s top job, which he held for less than two years. But he is expected to bide his time, first remaining in Mr. Olmert”s coalition government to burnish his leadership credentials.