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Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's preferred candidate to succeed President Moshe Katsav, Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center dean Amnon Rubinstein, has decided to turn down an offer from Olmert to run on the Kadima ticket, political sources told The Jerusalem Post Monday.
Rubinstein's decision gave a boost to Likud MK Reuven Rivlin, the presumed frontrunner. Rubinstein plans to deliver his answer to Olmert in a meeting scheduled for sometime during the next few days and he has told close friends that despite being convinced he could have won in the secret ballot in the Knesset, he preferred to devote his time to his family and his literary career.
The decision leaves the ruling party without a candidate at a crucial juncture. Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz is expected to announce within three weeks whether he will accept the police recommendation to indict Katsav for rape and other offenses. Katsav has reportedly said that if he were charged, he would have no choice but to resign; a presidential election would be held in the Knesset within 45 days.
A source close to Olmert said the prime minister respected Rubinstein's decision. Kadima officials acknowledged that failure to get a candidate elected would be a severe blow to Kadima's ability to govern and to Olmert's prestige. Six years ago, the election of Likud's Katsav, then a member of the opposition, over Labor's Shimon Peres was seen as an omen predicting the demise of Ehud Barak's government.
Peres denied reports he was considering running for president again. Labor MK Yoram Marciano said he had obtained a commitment from Labor chairman Amir Peretz on Monday to back Peres, but Peretz's spokesman said he made no such commitment to Marciano.
A source close to Peres said he would take no steps toward running for president unless it was clear that he would win. The source said Peres was waiting for Olmert to ask him to run and that if both Olmert and Peretz supported him, it might convince him.
A Labor minister said that if Peres ran, he would be willing to serve as his campaign chairman. But a Labor MK said the 83-year-old Peres should not run for a seven-year term as president, because "Israel does not need a 90-year-old president."
Marciano said that if Peres ran, no other Labor candidate should enter the contest. In the past, Marciano said the Labor faction should meet to formally endorse the candidacy of Labor MK Colette Avital. Avital, a former Peres protege, said that if Peres ran, she would have less of a chance to win, but that she would "continue to fight."
Olmert's previous presidential candidate was Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who was extremely interested in the position and had already set up a framework of supporters and lobbyists to run his campaign. However, the former Israel chief rabbi got cold feet following the Katsav investigation and the ensuing media circus.
"He is afraid of the media beginning to look for skeletons in his own closet," said one of his unofficial backers this week, "and wasn't prepared to suffer the indignity."
Unless Kadima manages to come up with a new candidate soon, Rivlin will be a strong favorite. Despite the Likud having only 12 MKs and Rivlin's steadfast right-wing views, he is a very popular figure both in parliament and with the public, respected by many who do not share his views including Arab MKs and Labor MK Shelly Yacimovich. Support for his candidacy is expected to cross party lines, and Kadima faction chairman Avigdor Yitzhaki has endorsed him.
Rubinstein, a law professor and Jerusalem Post columnist, was also thought to have a good chance of gaining support across the political divide. Through three decades of public service in the Knesset and as a minister, he was seen as a stalwart of the left wing, but shifted toward the Zionist mainstream in recent years, criticizing his former colleagues on the left.
Upon retiring from the Knesset he returned to academia as head of the law school at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and, after writing a series of highly regarded books on law and Zionism, he recently turned to fiction. His latest book, Road Number Five, was published earlier this year and he is currently working on his third novel. He told friends over the past few days that he was enjoying being a novelist too much to return to the political scene. In addition, his wife and other family members adamantly opposed such a move.