Vice Premier Shimon Peres ended his losing ways on Wednesday, beating MKs Reuven Rivlin (Likud) and Colette Avital (Labor) to become Israel's ninth president. The victory vanquished his previous eight defeats. He also avenged his loss to the Likud's Moshe Katsav in the 2000 presidential race.
"This may be my last contribution to the state," Peres said. "No matter how much I thought of this, I was caught unprepared. Today, I witnessed a show of unity, togetherness, and democracy at its finest. Today, the Knesset showed nobility and camaraderie."
The Knesset plenum broke into applause when Speaker Dalia Itzik announced that for the first time since 1959, except for a few months during the 16th Knesset, Shimon Peres would no longer be an MK.
The 83-year-old Peres will start his seven-year term as president on July 16. The largely ceremonial position will cap hiss six-decade- long career, in which he served in nearly all of Israel's top civilian posts, and won the Nobel Prize in 1994 for forging the Oslo Accords interim peace deal, alongside the late Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat.
Peres began his career as a top aide to Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. He served as prime minister from 1984 to 1986, then again in 1995-96 after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, but never won an election for the position outright.
In Wednesday's presidential vote, Peres took a clear lead in the first round, garnering 58 votes to Rivlin's 37 and Avital's 21. Minutes after the tally, Avital and Rivlin announced that they were withdrawing from the race, leaving Peres with no competition in the second round. Eighty-six MKs voted for Peres, with only NU-NRP and several Likud MKs voting against him, and several left-wing and Arab MKs abstaining.
Peres was widely expected to win the second round, especially after both Avital and Rivlin endorsed his candidacy.
"I thank all those who voted for me and now ask them to vote for Shimon Peres," a teary-eyed Rivlin said. "Long live the Knesset and long live the State of Israel."
Avital thanked her supporters and reminded MKs that she was the first woman to contend for the presidency, marking a "historic moment for women everywhere." She hinted that she intended to run for the position again.
Peres would have won in the first round if three Balad MKs had not submitted blank ballots.
Going into the first round, most factions swore to maintain party loyalty and vote in concert. The factions that announced they would support Peres were Kadima (29 MKs), Shas (12) and the Gil Pensioners (7), for a total of 48 MKs. Rivlin was supported by the Likud (12), Israel Beiteinu (11) and NU-NRP (9), for a total of 32 MKs. Avital was promised the support of Labor (19) and Hadash (3), totaling 22 MKs.
During the actual balloting, the only vote the Knesset conducts by secret ballot, a number of lawmakers defected from their parties to vote for other candidates.
At least five Labor legislators deserted their party's candidate to vote for Peres or Rivlin. Avital was supported, however, by a number of women from other parties, including Kadima MKs Marina Solodkin and Amira Dotan and MK Zehava Gal-On of Meretz. Avital also received several votes from the Arab parties.
Rivlin's poor showing in the first round surprised the popular lawmaker. A number of Kadima, United Torah Judaism and Israel Beiteinu MKs who had pledged to support him voted for Peres at the last moment.
"There was a move, a wave in the Knesset of people really starting to feel that the vote should go to Peres," said one Israel Beiteinu MK, who secretly crossed his party line to vote for Peres. "I think we were all feeling how disappointing it would be for the Israeli public if this historic figure ended his career with no honor ever being bestowed upon him by the Knesset."
Eyal Arad, the senior strategist behind Peres's campaign, said that although they had been canvassing MKs for more than six months, the final push had come only in the last several weeks.
"There has been a very personal and active role taken by Peres in winning this presidency," said Arad. "MKs were certainly affected by this."
In the final, second round, a number of legislators who had seesawed over supporting Peres decided to vote for the vice premier. Peres aides estimated that 27 Kadima MKs, 7 Gil MKs, 3 UTJ MKs, 12 Shas MKs and several Meretz and Arab MKs voted for him. Shas's spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who betrayed Peres in the last presidential election in 2000, secured victory for him in Wednesday's race. Shas Chairman Eli Yishai spent nearly the entire vote next to Peres, assuring him that he would have the crucial Shas votes to secure his victory.
Directly following his victory celebration in the Knesset, Peres visited the Western Wall, and then Yosef's Jerusalem home.
"I am an admirer of the rabbi," Peres said there. 'He is a genius and the nation of Israel must be thankful to him."
Peres said he saw his role as president as that of a "great 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. He stressed that he would like to unite people from different religious and racial backgrounds. "A president must represent the people's desire to be a united nation," he said.
Peres is set to visit the grave of David Ben-Gurion in Sde Boker on Thursday.
Peres will be entering a presidential residence that has been battered by a number of scandals surrounding previous office-holders. Seventh president Ezer Weizman resigned in 2000 following allegations that he accepted bribes. Outgoing President Moshe Katsav has been accused of raping or otherwise sexually assaulting four female employees.
Knesset members were reminded of these presidential stains as they conducted their vote Wednesday in the plenum. The balcony that would normally hold the departing president remained empty, as Katsav has suspended himself from all presidential duties and Acting President Dalia Itzik was fulfilling her other role as Knesset speaker.
Despite his victory, Peres and his campaign chairman, Kadima MK Yoel Hasson, announced that they would resume work on the "Peres Bill" that would change the presidential elections to an open vote.
"We believe that conducting these elections by open vote will help reduce the political wheeling and dealing that surrounds the presidential race," said Hasson. He added that he has asked the House Committee to unfreeze the bill, and hoped to see it come to a first vote next Wednesday.
Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.