´Peres Law´ Approved by Committee, Lacks Knesset Majority

Efforts by Vice-Premier Shimon Peres (Kadima) to improve his election chances in the upcoming presidential race by forcing an open vote in Knesset are meeting with only partial success.

Ezra HaLevi and Hillel Fendel, | updated: 14:50

It is widely assumed that Peres stands a better chance of being elected President of Israel if the Knesset Members' votes are tallied openly, rather than in a secret ballot as currently mandated by law.

The proposal to change the law and require an open vote - commonly known as the Peres Bill - was passed on Sunday by the Ministerial Legislative Committee, by a vote of 7 to 5. Six out of seven Kadima ministers and a Pensioners Party minister supported it, while Labor, Shas and Kadima's Meir Sheetrit opposed.

The bill will next be taken to the Knesset, where pundits feel it has a very small chance of being passed.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Peres he would do everything he could to push through a law changing the electoral procedure on his behalf, but has not yet been able to scrape together the necessary Knesset votes.

Peres, who has been active in Israeli politics since the founding of the state, has found little success electorally. The octogenarian wields much influence and boasts powerful financial backers in both the US and Europe, yet has never won a national election. (The only near-exception was in the 1980s, when his Labor party won 48 votes compared to the Likud's 47, but Peres was unable to form a government and was forced to settle for a rotation agreement with the Likud's Yitzchak Shamir.)

Peres has been defeated when running for Labor Party Chairman, for Prime Minister, and even for President; seven years ago, Moshe Katzav of the Likud surprisingly out-tallied him among the 120 Knesset Members.

The upcoming presidential election may be more critical than most, as its results could directly affect whether a deal to give away most of Judea and Samaria could be consummated. Palestinian Authority leaders have hinted that without a pardon for convicted and imprisoned terror chief Marwan Barghouti, who is serving multiple life-sentences for dozens of murders, no deal can be made. The president holds the right to grant clemency, and Peres has implied that Barghouti - whom Peres views as a "pragmatist" - should in fact be pardoned and freed.

Former Knesset Speaker Ruby Rivlin of the Likud, who is perceived to be Peres' main opponent in a future presidential race, is assumed to be most unlikely to agree to such a pardon.

Olmert Wants Peres
Prime Minister Olmert is said to be determined to elevate Peres to the position of President, possibly due to the pivotal role the next president would play in his diplomatic plans. Kadima Party officials say that Olmert plans to re-shuffle his Cabinet, moving Defense Minister Amir Peretz to another ministry; among the changes may be new ministerial positions to coalition parties that agree to support the legal changes necessary to elect Peres.

Critics of the Peres law - generally from the opposition - say that holding an open vote would force it to take place according to party discipline, amounting to the prime minister receiving the right to appoint the president.

MK Effie Eitam (National Union) said that the vote today broadcasts the "dangerous and corrupt message that every law can be changed based on political interests." He said he plans to submit a bill stipulating that changes in the way public servants are elected will take effect only for the following term.

Some opponents to the law are not necessarily against Peres himself. Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit (Kadima) says he supports Peres, but not the open-vote bill.

Labor MK Shelly Yechimovich has come out strongly against the maneuver, saying, "The legal system is not putty in the hands of political interest groups. The Peres Bill for an open ballot is an unbridled attempt by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to change the law for political needs of some sort or another.” Yechimovich voted against the bill at Sunday's committee vote.

Even Peres-protege Meretz party chairman MK Yossi Beilin has called on the prime minister to stop backing the law change. "We must avoid making a farce out of changing the law of the presidency,” Beilin said. “The purpose of a secret ballot is to ensure that establishing who is the number-one civilian won't be done according to party discipline. The moment the ballot is open, it will become an inseparable part of sharing the coalition booty, and will cause additional damage to the institution of president."