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Vice Premier Shimon Peres was elected Israel's ninth president yesterday, capping a six-decade political career in which he has held most 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 second and 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."

With the announcement of his election for president, Peres ceased to be a Knesset member, after 48 consecutive years, and is no longer vice premier.

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 Colette 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.

Rivlin, whose hope to gain wide support from the center and right wing was dashed almost completely, followed suit. He called on the Knesset members to vote for Peres unanimously.

"The Knesset has decided to support the candidacy of one man, who is more worthy," he said. "Long live the president of the state, long live the State of Israel."

"The president's role is not to deal with politics and partisanship, but to represent what unites us in a strong voice." Peres said. "A president must represent the people's desire to be a united nation. I will work to unify the nation. The Knesset chose to prove today that elected figures represent the people."

He singled out "my mentor and leader David Ben-Gurion, my friend and partner Yitzhak Rabin," and conveyed wishes of recovery to Ariel Sharon.

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

Olmert said Peres' election marks a "turning point in Israel's public life. This is a moment of joy, of hope, a rare, extraordinary moment of spiritual elevation."

After his election, Peres went to the Western Wall and then to the home of Shas leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who had prevented his election in 2000 and made it happen yesterday. Peres thanked Yosef for Shas' support, and said: "I admire Rabbi Yosef. He is a genius of whom Israel should be proud."

Peres - born Szymon Perski on August 2, 1923 - plans to visit the grave of Ben-Gurion at 11 a.m. today.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and King of Spain Juan Carlos congratulated Peres on his election yesterday. Disgraced president Moshe Katsav also called to offer congratulations.

Meretz leader Yossi Beilin said that Peres' election was an important achievement for the peace camp. "Israel chose the man who shook Arafat's hand as its first citizen," he said.

The National Union-National Religious Party called on Peres to unite the nation and avoid divisive, controversial issues.

MK Yisrael Eldad (National Union) urged Knesset members after the first round to vote against Peres. "Peres is not worthy of being president," he said.

Until Peres enters office in a month's time, Dalia Itzik will continue serving as acting president.

Despite Peres' record as a Nobel laureate, former prime minister, defense minister, protege of 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.

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.

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