Knesset Votes on Israel’s 10th President

In shadow of Ben-Eliezer's graft probe, lawmakers will choose between five candidates, with no clear favorite.

Ofer Vaknin, Shiran Granot, Tess Scheflan, Rami Shllush, Olivier Fitoussi

Knesset members began casting their votes Tuesday morning to elect Israel’s 10th president from among five candidates, the largest amount ever to vie for the job at once.

As of Monday, no clear favorite had emerged. More MKs had publicly declared support for MK Reuven Rivlin (Likud) than for anyone else, but he is considered unlikely to garner enough votes to win in the first round. Former Supreme Court Justice Dalia Dorner, former MK Dalia Itzik (Kadima) and MK Meir Sheetrit (Hatnuah) are all considered contenders for the second spot in the run-off. The fifth candidate, Dan Shechtman, a Nobel laureate in chemistry, had yet to receive public support from a single lawmaker.

Nevertheless, the secret ballot means MKs can vote for someone other than the candidate they publicly supported, and that has happened before. In the 2000 presidential election, for instance, Shimon Peres was the heavy favorite, but ended up losing to Moshe Katsav, only to win when he ran again seven years later.

Should either Dorner, Itzik or Shechtman end up winning, they would make history: Never before has a candidate from outside the Knesset defeated a sitting MK.

Shechtman announced Monday that if he isn’t elected president, he will consider starting a party and running in the next Knesset election.

Speaking at a press conference, he said he recently met with former minister Moshe Kahlon, and the idea that they should team up to form such a party “wasn’t completely ruled out.” Any party he formed would be politically centrist, Shechtman added.

Despite his lack of public supporters, Shechtman insisted that enough MKs have privately pledged support to put him into the second round. He said he called the press conference to encourage more MKs to back him.

“The MKs listen to the public,” he explained. “And the public sympathizes with my candidacy.”

The vote will begin at 11 A.M. in the Knesset. If no candidate receives the necessary 61 (out of 120) votes in the first round, a run-off will be held.

A sixth candidate, MK Benjamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor), dropped out at the last minute when police opened a criminal investigation against him.

Unlike in previous presidential elections, neither the coalition nor the opposition has an official candidate, nor does any party except Hatnuah, which is backing Sheetrit. All the candidates enjoy cross-party support and are fighting for the same votes.

Click here for more coverage of the Israeli presidential election or here to find out about the five remaining candidates.

Shas announced Monday that it will let its members vote their conscience, and United Torah Judaism is expected to do the same. Thus the ultra-Orthodox parties’ 18 votes will also be scattered among several candidates. Had they decided to unite behind a single person, that candidate would have received a significant boost.

The campaign has been exceptionally dirty, with the media publishing unsavory reports about several candidates, such as Ben-Eliezer’s involvement in various London casinos or the 250,000 shekels ($72,000) in severance pay that Sheetrit reportedly gave a former housekeeper. Ben-Eliezer subsequently charged that someone had hired private investigators to dig up dirt about him, while Sheetrit accused “one of the presidential candidates” of waging a smear campaign against him.

On Monday, Sheetrit agreed to disclose partial information about his finances, after the other four candidates did so on Sunday. Speaking at a faction meeting, he said he owned four apartments worth 5.3 million shekels altogether. Earlier, he confirmed to the media that his wife had purchased a fifth apartment for $450,000 in 2007, while he was serving as interior minister.

Meanwhile, police continued their probe of Ben-Eliezer on Monday by searching a safety deposit box in which they found some $600,000 that he never reported to the tax authorities.

Initially, when police had asked him whether he had a deposit box, he said no. But he later changed his story, telling them he had a box at a Jerusalem branch of Israel Discount Bank in which he kept $60,000.

When police opened the box on Monday morning in the presence of Ben-Eliezer’s attorneys, they discovered that it actually held 10 times that amount. The attorneys said the extra money belonged to Ben-Eliezer’s son, who had asked the lawmaker to hold it for him until he was ready to use it to buy an apartment.

This is the third large sum of money about which Ben-Eliezer has been questioned. Earlier, he was interrogated about a $400,000 loan from businessman Avraham Nanikashvili and a $350,000 check that he cashed at a Tel Aviv money changer. Police sources said he has yet to provide satisfactory explanations for all this money, which raises suspicions of tax evasion at the very least, and possibly more serious crimes.