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The presidential election will begin in the Knesset today at noon. The three candidates are Shimon Peres (Kadima), Reuven Rivlin (Likud) and Colette Avital (Labor).

If none receives at least 61 votes in the first round, another round will be held. If a majority of 61 is again not obtained, a runoff will be held between the two leading candidates, presumably Peres and Rivlin. The election is thus expected to take until late afternoon or early evening.

The camps of the two front-runners say they believe their forces are balanced and the winner is not clear. Three unknowns govern the race:

* How will United Torah Judaism, Hadash, Ra'am-Ta'al and Balad vote, given that all of them want to negotiate over their support?

* How many Labor MKs will vote for Shimon Peres after Avital steps out of the race? Labor sources say most faction members will overcome their personal gripes against Peres and vote for him. But a source in Kadima said: "Labor can topple Peres." It is also unclear how the results of the Labor primary will impact the vote.

* How many MKs who pledged to vote for Peres will in fact vote for Rivlin? The Rivlin camp predicts seven defectors in Kadima. And despite the decision by Shas's spiritual mentor, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, that the faction would back Peres, Rivlin associates are convinced that there are four defectors in Shas. They explained that Shas MKs believe Yosef's instruction was ambiguous.

The factions that have decided to support Rivlin are Likud (12), Yisrael Beiteinu (11) and National Union (9), totaling 32. Those supporting Peres are Kadima (29), Shas (12) and the Pensioners (7), totaling 48. Colette Avital's supporters are Labor (19) and Hadash (3), totaling 22; but Hadash has decided its position only for the first round.

Advisors to Peres and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have said that since Peres seems to have a comfortable lead, they will seek a Peres victory in the first round. Olmert's associates were thus working late last night to persuade Labor and Meretz MKs supporting Avital to transfer their votes to Peres.

Avital is expected to lose the first round. If she makes a very poor showing, she may drop out, or she may stay in for the second round. In the former scenario, Peres and Rivlin would go on the second round, in which a majority of 61 would again be required. Since abstentions are expected, it is not clear how this majority would be obtained. If it is not, the loser would drop out, and in the third round, lawmakers would vote for or against the remaining candidate. The scenario being bandied about the Knesset yesterday was that Peres could lose the third round against himself. In that case, new elections would be held within 30 days.

Ra'am-Ta'al will apparently split its vote: Three members will vote for Peres, and MK Ahmed Tibi will vote for Rivlin. Hadash will apparently split its vote in the second round. Balad is waiting to hear the candidates' views on shortening the sentences of security prisoners serving life terms, and the faction might abstain.

UTJ is expected to receive instructions from its rabbinic leaders only this morning. Three will apparently vote for Rivlin, but it is unclear how the Gerer and Vishnitz Hasidic factions of the party will vote.

Some sources said the Gerer Rebbe, Ya'akov Aryeh Alter, is leaning toward instructing his two representatives to vote Peres. Another source said all six will vote Rivlin.