Pres. Race: Rivlin & Avital Withdraw, Peres Becomes President

Following a first-round victory for Peres, Rivlin surprised by withdrawing from race, and Peres was elected in the second round.

Hillel Fendel ,

Shimon Peres will be Israel's ninth President, following Ruby Rivlin's surprise withdrawal from the presidential race after the results of the first round became known.

With the news that Peres had received 58 votes, third-place finisher Labor MK Collette Avital (21 votes) withdrew her candidacy, as expected, leaving Peres and Rivlin to battle it out in the second round.  Given the fact that most or all of Avital's votes were expected to go to former Laborite Peres, a Peres victory seemed to be a foregone conclusion.

However, Rivlin, who had expected to receive many more than the 37 votes he garnered, then surprised the nation by announcing his withdrawal from the race. With a breaking voice, MK Ruby Rivlin thanked all the "70 MKs who had said they would support my candidacy..." and informed the country that he was withdrawing from the race. With teary eyes, he asked the Knesset to support Shimon Peres.

Even Peres's victory, practically his first in public electoral life, was thus tainted by the fact that he did not win outright; his opponents merely withdrew.  In accordance with the election rules, Peres was the sole candidate in the second round, and the 120 MKs were asked to vote "for" or "against."

In the event, out of 119 MKs who voted in the second round, 86 voted for Peres, and 23 voted against him.  Eight MKs abstained, and two votes were disqualified. Shimon Peres is scheduled to be sworn in on July 15. He is to be replaced in the Knesset by the next candidate on the Kadima list, retired General Prof. Yitzchak Ben-Yisrael.

Three MKs abstained in the first round, and one vote was disqualified.

---This report was filed earlier today:

In what is virtually certain to be a two-round contest, the Knesset will elect Israel's 9th president today. Underdog Ruby Rivlin still hopes to beat Shimon Peres.

Israel's three largest parties are fielding candidates in today's election: Kadima is running with Vice Premier Shimon Peres, Labor - three-time MK Collette Avital, and the Likud with five-term MK Ruby Rivlin.

--Click below to see the three candidates voting.--

The 120 Knesset Members will vote in a secret ballot for the new President, beginning at noon. If no one candidate receives at least 61 MKs, which is virtually certain, a second round will be held. Any candidate has the option of bowing out at that point, and tremendous pressure will likely be exerted upon the third-place finisher - likely to be Avital - to do so.

If in the second round as well, no one receives 61 votes, the rules change slightly, and become complex.  If in the second round three candidates run, then the two higher-placing candidates run against each other, and whoever receives more votes than the others is declared Israel's president. If, however, only two candidates ran in the second round, then in the third round, only the highest-placing candidate runs - and the MKs must vote either "for" or "against."

Behind the scenes, the lobbying of the MKs continues to be feverish. For Peres, famous throughout Israel as a perennial "loser" of elections, today's election is a last-ditch effort to change his historic reputation. His support in Kadima is mostly strong, and he is also expected to garner most or all of the votes of the Pensioners and Meretz parties. Shas has officially announced its support for him.

Rivlin, on the other hand, known to be right-wing politically, is well-respected in the Knesset for his fairness and affability. The Likud, National Union/NRP, Yisrael Beiteinu and UTJ are expected to support him nearly unanimously. MK Avital's support comes only from Labor, and even there it is fairly weak.

In each voting round, every MK will be called by name and will step up to the curtained ballot box in front of the Knesset podium. Behind the curtain, he or she will take a slip of paper with his/her chosen candidate's name, place it into the supplied envelope, and then step out from behind the curtain and place the envelope into the ballot box.

Many questions remain unanswered as the MKs near the moment of decision - and some will remain unanswered even after the election. For instance, does Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef's ruling in favor of Peres obligate all 12 Shas MKs - or did some of them receive "private" rulings allowing them to vote for Rivlin?  Nissim Ze'ev, the most right-wing Shas MK, denied this possibility today, saying that Rabbi Yosef's ruling was unambiguous and firm and that he does not believe anyone will go against the rabbi's will.  Despite this, skepticism still reigns in the Knesset as to whether every Shas MK will vote for Peres.

It is widely believed that in the previous election seven years ago, when Moshe Katzav defeated Peres in the second round, Shas MKs did not fulfill their semi-pledges to vote for Peres, thus giving Katzav the victory.

It is also not clear how many Kadima MKs who say they will vote for Peres will actually do so. Many of them are former Likud members and have strong loyalties to Peres. MK Ze'ev Elkin, a Peres man, says he knows of some party colleagues who plan to defy the party decision.

In addition, what will Labor do after Avital drops out? Many Labor MKs are friends and long-time party allies of Peres, but many of them are furious at him for having quit the party to join Kadima. The Arab MKs, too, are a question mark. Even Prime Minister Olmert himself, though he instructed his party to vote for Peres, may not want to see such an active president beside him at the helm of leadership.

Some of the answers will be provided within a few hours - and others will remain forever secret.