Jerusalem socialite Rebbetzin Hadassah Ralbag enjoys telling the story of how she managed her close friend Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau's campaign headquarters when he ran for the Chief Rabbinate in February 1993. "I had two prime ministers manning the phones - Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir," is her favorite anecdote. Lau's large band of admirers are hoping for a similar coalition to back his election as Israel's ninth president. Their plan is for Lau's nomination - unlike that of previous candidates, who were offered by political parties - to cross the political spectrum. Thus they weren't too pleased this week with the report that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has already begun working on ensuring Lau's election. On the other hand, the fact that the race has already begun (at least behind the scenes, well before the vote on President Moshe Katsav's replacement is supposed to take place in the Knesset) fits in neatly with their plans. They believe that the other candidates will burn themselves out in the coming months, while Lau, according to one of his advisers, "will respond to public demand and allow his name to be put forward." Katsav's seven-year term ends in August 2007. The Knesset will vote for his successor in more than a year. So why is there already such an interest in who is preparing to run for the ceremonial job? There are a number of reasons for the race's early start. First, now that election season is finally behind us, the presidential vote is the only contest on the calendar. Second, the elections left an impressive list of veteran politicians high and dry, with neither title nor busy schedule. Running for president is a good way to keep their feet in the water. Two Likud heavyweights have already expressed interest: former foreign minister and premier-aspirant David Levy, who after 37 years in the Knesset failed to make it onto the Likud list and is eager to come back through the main door; and MK Ruby Rivlin who until two months ago, as Knesset Speaker, served as the president's stand-in and wants a crack at the top job. On the Labor side, there is National Infrastructures Minister Binyamin "Fuad" Ben-Eliezer who, despite his senior cabinet post, realizes that his chances of regaining the party's leadership are extremely slim and that if he doesn't win the presidency, he's at the last stop of his political career. Ben-Eliezer will have the full support of party leader Amir Peretz, who is anxious to free a spot on Labor's ministerial team, so he can fulfill his promise of a cabinet post for Avishay Braverman. Ben-Eliezer is the only candidate to already be actively canvassing. This week he visited Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef in an attempt to gauge the party's possible support. Fuad hopes that his affinity with the rabbi - both of them are Iraqi-born - will help clinch Shas's 12 votes. Party insiders say, however, that the shared accent won't be enough. Another political grandee mentioned as presidential material is, of course, the eternal Peres. But most Peresistas agree that even Israel's quintessential elder statesman will balk at running for a seven-year term at the age of 84. The real reason that Peres will probably sit this one out, though, is that he can't bear to risk reliving the trauma of his shock-defeat to Katsav in 2000 (not to mention his equally shocking sliver-thin losses to Binyamin Netanyahu in 1996 and to Amir Peretz last November). The timing is also right for another couple of potential presidents: Israel's highest profile judges, Supreme Court Chief Justice Aharon Barak and his deputy, Mishael Cheshin, who are retiring this year. Both are seen by the left-wing-secular-intellectual camp as ideal candidates. BUT IT'S not only the candidates and their fan clubs who are stoking the presidential cauldron. Olmert, too, has a clear interest in jump-starting the race. Successfully fielding a president will be another step toward affirming Kadima as the natural party of power. But he has an additional reason. After almost six years of exemplary, scandal-free service, without putting his foot in his mouth even once, there are signs that Katsav is beginning to feel frisky. He found it hard to hide his ill ease during disengagement, and in a speech to the nation on the eve of the pullout, he apologized to the settlers - a gesture Ariel Sharon steadfastly refused to make. Lately, too, he indicated his preference for a referendum before any further settlement evacuations, which triggered Olmert to stress at the opening session of the new Knesset that the nation had already had its say on the matter in the elections. In Likud and Kadima there is a sneaking suspicion that Katsav is preparing to re-enter politics after he leaves the president's mansion. There are those who see him as a potential savior of the war-torn Likud - the perfect middle-of-the-road candidate to sweep aside Netanyahu and Silvan Shalom, re-unite the party and reconnect it with the public. Katsav had prime ministerial ambitions in the past. He ran for the Likud leadership in 1993, but came in last among four candidates. Now it seems to some political observers that after six years of remaining above politics, Katsav - who recently entered a dialogue with settler leaders and rabbis - is beginning to realign himself with the Right. Whether this is just the re-emergence of Katsav's personal viewpoint or indeed the first step toward a second political career, Olmert would be glad to get rid of him. But since he can't remove him, and because an open conflict with a popular president can only cause him damage, Olmert is trying a different tack. The sooner the question of his succesor's identity becomes a major issue, the sooner people will begin regarding Katsav as a has-been, long before his term ends. Interestingly, no one is raising the question of whether we need a president at all, as people were doing toward the end of Ezer Weizman's scandalous term. The totally powerless post was created by David Ben-Gurion for the president of the Zionist movement, Chaim Weizmann (Ezer's uncle), who complained bitterly about the job, to wit: "The only place I'm allowed to stick my nose is in my handkerchief." The fact that there are no calls to cancel what is essentially a NIS 26 million pension plan for one unemployed politician is a credit to the quiet respectability that Katsav has restored to the institution. Nor is anyone taking seriously the proposals for a shift to a presidential-style of government that would render the job obsolete. Such grandiose plans might have been believable when Sharon founded Kadima. Six months later, Olmert with his fractious coalition isn't even going to try. WHICH BRINGS us back to current slew of presidential hopefuls. In the fragmented 17th Knesset, the chances of any political candidate bridging party divides to garner sufficient support are extremely low. Even in the doubtful eventuality that the coalition manages to agree on a candidate, a secret ballot means there's no guarantee the decision would be upheld. Peres in 2000 and Menahem Elon in 1983 were both supported by the ruling parties and seen as shoe-ins; but enough MKs changed sides behind the curtain to award the job to their rivals. And then there is Lau. His supporters believe that he is the only candidate capable of uniting the normally warring parties, right, left, center, religious and secular around him. Lau isn't the most learned of rabbis. None of his writings have entered the canon of Jewish law. He won't be remembered for ground-breaking rulings. Nor can he boast thousands of disciples. His claim to fame is for being the most successful diplomat Jewish Orthodoxy has ever had. No one remembers his ever getting into trouble with a controversial or political statement in three decades of service as chief rabbi of Netanya, Tel Aviv and Israel. He has performed an unbelievable balancing-act, remaining within the broad Israeli consensus and, at the same time, never offending ultra-Orthodox sensibilities. He has managed to go through his whole career without identifying himself with one particular stream in the Orthodox world. Whenever religious controversy seemed inevitable, he has always managed to avoid the storm, usually with a timely trip overseas. It almost seems as if his whole career has been a preparation for the presidency. There has been quiet talk of "President Lau" ever since he left the Chief Rabbinate three years ago. His advisers have kept him in the public eye with a carefully choreographed series of appearances and interviews. He is still the media's favorite rabbi - not a difficult feat when one takes into account the many personal and financial scandals that have bedeviled the two new chief rabbis. His autobiography, with the incredibly moving story of his being a seven-year old boy in Buchenwald, has been a permanent fixture on the bestseller list for the last year. IT'S EASY to understand why Lau is the ideal president for Olmert, aside from his eminent electability. Who better to send to a settlement on the eve of its evacuation, to participate in the mourning and to beg for a peaceful withdrawal? Lau is the perfect conciliator. The settlers cannot possibly refuse to see him and he can be relied upon to offer them the utmost degree of sympathy without a word of criticism against the government or its policies. His only misstep was a month ago when he told Ma'ariv's Web site that he would accept the post "if a serious proposal were put forward. But it won't come from me. I haven't moved a finger, said a word, set up a headquarters or hired a publicist." That's true. There is no official "Lau for President" organization. But a network of well-heeled, highly connected lobbyists has been in place for years and is ready to spring into action at a moment's notice. The heads of that network thought that the interview was too premature and they're not overly happy with the timing of Olmert's reported support. Lau's people won't admit this, but they're unhappy about his being out there as a target so many months before the vote. The rabbi has his share of bitter enemies, chief among them current Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger. The fear is that over the long run-up to the actual elections, an invisible hand will recycle the 20-year-old rumors of a sex-scandal that appeared in the papers in the '80s. Other skeletons in his closet are reports of illegal payments that he received to perform wedding ceremonies. As scandals go, it's nothing serious and has already been hashed over in the press without causing Lau too much damage. But the Lau camp has worked hard on his pristine image, and they don't want anything to ruin it. Another worry is Lau's being considered too close to Olmert. Elements among the settlers might start painting him as the prime minister's agent, and part of the convergence machine. The rabbi's advisers were eager this week to put his campaign back on message. "He will not run for the job, but if the nation demands, he'll be there."