Text size

Vice Premier Shimon Peres was elected Israel's ninth president Wednesday, capping a six-decade political career in which he has held every senior government post.

He will be sworn into office on July 15, for a seven-year term, replacing the disgraced Moshe Katsav, who faces multiple allegations of sexual assault against female staffers.

Speaking at the Knesset after the final round of voting, the beaming 83-year-old thanked his family and the lawmakers who supported him and pledged to "give my all to serve Israel."

He singled out three colleagues - David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon.

Peres said he saw his new role as a 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.

"A president must represent the people's desire to be a united nation," he said. "The Knesset chose to prove today that elected figures represent the people."

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert paid tribute to his vice premier, saying that, "Israel has been waiting hopefully for the election of Peres as president."

Peres won 86 votes in a second round ballot after his two rivals in the race threw their support to him. In the first round, he fell three votes shy of the 61 needed to clinch the presidency.

Minutes after the first round of balloting was announced, with Peres taking 58 votes to 37 for Likud challenger Reuven Rivlin and 21 for Labor MK Collette Avital, Avital called an impromptu news conference to announce that she had decided to pull out of the race and throw her support to Peres. Soon after, Rivlin followed suit.

Despite Peres' record as a Nobel laureate, former prime minister, defense minister, protege of David Ben-Gurion and founder of Israel's nuclear program, much of his political legacy was still riding on the vote, following a string of electoral defeats going back decades.

Peres' victory followed an especially painful defeat seven years ago at the hands of then-Likud MK Moshe Katsav. On the eve of the vote, Peres was said to have been assured by no less than 66 lawmakers that they would vote for him. But when the votes were counted in a secret ballot, 63 MKs had voted for Katsav and only 57 for Peres.

Katsav, who now faces the possibility of rape and sexual assault charges, has suspended himself from presidential duties.

Rivlin, a former speaker of the Knesset who enjoys broad popularity in the house, was until recently seen as the clear favorite in the race. But a late surge by Peres, courting the endorsement of ultra-Orthodox spiritual leaders and other key figures, closed the gap.

Avital, who first came to public prominence as Israel's consul-general in New York, was the first woman to mount a serious challenge for the presidency.

Among Peres' challenges in winning the presidency was his defection from the Labor Party prior to elections last year, a move which cost him his traditional power base. Peres left the party following his 2005 defeat by Amir Peretz for the position of Labor chairman. Peres joined the Kadima faction founded by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon.

The presidential race was made particularly tense by the position of the Labor faction as potential kingmaker. But when Labor's Avital endorsed Peres after the first round, his victory was all but guaranteed.

On the morning of the election, Maariv daily's front page was bordered by individual portraits of Peres detailing each one of his eight electoral defeats ranging back to the early 1970s.

In the early phase of the current campaign, Peres, maligned by the press as a serial loser, sought in vain to have the Knesset vote take place openly, and not by secret ballot.

"Internationally, he is the most well known Israeli in the world today. He is from the founding generation and he is a symbol for us," said Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog of Labor on Wednesday. "For him, this is the closing of a circle."