Israel’s parliament was on Tuesday voting for the nation’s 10th president, with a run-off vote pitching a rightwing hawk against a centrist candidate in the race to replace Shimon Peres.
However, none of the candidates comes even close to the stature of Peres, whose charisma and popularity enabled him to transcend the largely ceremonial position of the presidency and use it to promote a political message of peace.
Voting began at 0810 GMT with the Knesset’s 120 MPs casting a secret ballot for five candidates: former speaker and far-right hawk Reuven Rivlin; Meir Sheetrit of the centrist HaTnuah; Dalia Itzik, the first woman speaker of the Knesset; retired Supreme Court justice Dalia Dorner; and chemistry Nobel Laureate Dan Shechtman.
The first round failed to produce a clear winner, with Rivlin and Sheetrit set to go head-to head in a run-off vote.
Results from the initial round showed Rivlin secured 44 votes, Sheetrit 31, Itzik 28, Dorner 13 and Shechtman just one vote.
Final results are due later in the afternoon.
Called forward in alphabetical order, each MP walked to the front of the hall and entered the dark wooden cubicle, emerging with a blue envelope in hand which he or she then placed into a ballot box in public view.
The plenum buzzed with chatter as voting took place in a relaxed atmosphere.
An initial list of six candidates, three of them parliamentarians, fell to five over the weekend when Labour’s Binyamin Ben Eliezer withdrew his name after police launched an investigation into alleged financial irregularities.
– Hawk versus dove –
The likely winner is Rivlin, a 74-year-old veteran of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud who has served twice as speaker, has adamantly opposed a Palestinian state and is a strong backer of the settlements.
“Rivlin is far to the right of the clear Israeli consensus, he is opposed to the two-state solution, he is an out-and-out supporter of the settlement enterprise on both sides of the separation fence,” commentator Ben Caspit wrote in Maariv on Tuesday.
A native of Jerusalem, Rivlin is known for his quirky sense of humour and fierce defence of democracy, which, despite his political orientation, has earned him respect from the left as well as from Israel’s Arab minority.
Sheetrit’s parliamentary career also began with Likud in 1981, but he now stands for HaTnuah and has a reputation as a keen backer of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which offered a normalisation of ties with the Arab world in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from lands seized in 1967.
“Sheetrit’s political positions could easily earn him a place of honour in (leftwing party) Meretz,” said Mazal Mualem, an Israeli writing for the Al Monitor news website earlier this year.
Born in Morocco, he immigrated to Israel as a child and began his political career in 1974 as mayor of the poor southern town of Yavne, earning himself the image of a modest “man of the people”.
He left Likud in 2005 to join the new centrist Kadima party of the late primer Ariel Sharon, but later move to join Livni’s HaTnuah party when it was founded in late 2012.
Now 65, he has held six ministerial portfolios, among them those of the interior, housing, finance, justice, transportation and culture.
– Tough act to follow –
The last surviving member of Israel’s founding fathers, Peres has spent seven years as head of state and is still going strong, with his term due to end just a week shy of his 91st birthday.
Peres’ departure is likely to switch the presidency’s focus from international affairs to more domestic matters, commentators say.
So far, all the candidates have played the “national unity” card, pledging to respect the essentially apolitical nature of the role, which was so elegantly avoided by Peres.
His open engagement with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often put him on a direct collision course with Netanyahu, and he also spoke out about Israel’s often tense relations with Washington and on the Iranian nuclear threat.
For many, Peres will be remembered for restoring the reputation of the Israeli presidency, which was badly tarnished by former incumbent Moshe Katsav who was convicted of rape and other sexual offences.