(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Israel will elect a new president by June 13 at the latest, even if President Moshe Katsav attempts to hold onto his post for as long as possible, Knesset officials said Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Katsav's lawyers filed a request with the Knesset House Committee to extend his temporary suspension until a hearing on the charges against him, scheduled for May 8.
According to Knesset bylaws, MKs must vote for a president between 90 and 30 days before the end of the outgoing president's term; Wednesday June 13 is the last day the Knesset is in session before Katsav's final 30 days.
Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik intends to hold consultations on the date of the vote next week with the only two announced presidential candidates, MK Reuven Rivlin of Likud and MK Colette Avital of Labor.
She is also expected to consult with her political ally, Vice Premier Shimon Peres of Kadima.
Peres has not formally announced that he intends to run, but according to Knesset bylaws, he would not have to announce his candidacy until 10 days before the vote. Peres, who is the father of Israel's "nuclear ambiguity" policy, has said he intends to remain ambiguous about his candidacy for as long as possible.
When Peres made his traditional visit to Shas mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef ahead of Pessah, the rabbi asked him whether running for president would stop him from continuing his work for Negev and Galilee development. Peres gave a hint of his intentions when he replied that even as president, he could continue helping the people of Israel.
Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau has also not said whether he would run for president. Pensioners Party head Rafi Eitan denied reports in the Hebrew press that he told Lau at the March of the Living in Poland this week that his faction would support Lau if he threw his hat in the race.
Eitan's spokeswoman said he has made clear that he supports Peres.
Rivlin's candidacy is expected to be harmed by the release early next month of a report compiled by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss examining alleged financial mismanagement by Rivlin when he was Knesset speaker.
Asked what date they preferred for the race, Rivlin and Peres said it did not matter to them. An Avital adviser said she wanted the race to be held as soon as possible. The adviser said it might be better for her for the race to be held ahead of the May 28 Labor leadership primary.
The front-runner in the Labor race, MK Ami Ayalon, has endorsed Peres for president. The other Labor chairmanship candidates have all endorsed Avital.
Katsav's suspension expires on Monday, and if the Knesset House Committee fails to meet and approve another suspension, he will officially resume his duties as president on that day, and possibly officiate at ceremonies marking Independence Day, which begins that evening.
The panel announced that it would convene on Sunday to vote on the extension. Committee Chairwoman MK Ruhama Avraham (Kadima) said she did not foresee any problems in granting the request.
The Knesset approved Katsav's initial request for a three-month suspension on January 25, two days after Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz announced he intended to indict the president - pending the results of a hearing - on charges of sexual crimes involving four different women, harassing a witness and obstructing justice.
According to the Basic Law: Knesset, the president can temporarily suspend himself for up to three months. The suspension automatically expires unless the president requests to extend it.
A lawyer for Katsav said the president had decided to suspend himself for an additional period, despite the fact that he should never have been suspended in the first place.