Olmert Eyes Rabbi Lau as Next President; David Levy, Ben-Eliezer Also in Running

Senior Kadima members close to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert are lobbying in the Knesset for former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau to be elected the next president of Israel.

"Rabbi Lau will be the next president," a confidant of Olmert told Haaretz yesterday. "He is the most suitable candidate. He is a moderate man who will act to unite the various parts of the nation, and a steering team to promote his election has already been set up."

The presidential elections are scheduled to take place in about a year, shortly before the scheduled end of President Moshe Katsav's term in July 2007.

Olmert supports Lau, Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, for president. However, Vice Premier Shimon Peres, a senior member of Olmert's Kadima Party, may contend for the post again. Peres lost against Katsav in the confidential Knesset vote for president six years ago.

Officials in the Prime Minister's Bureau yesterday denied that Olmert had instructed the establishment of a committee to promote Lau.

However, a source close to Olmert said several weeks ago that it was unlikely that a man who would turn 84 in August 2007 would start serving a seven-year presidential term, in a reference to Peres.

National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor) and former Knesset Speaker MK Reuven Rivlin (Likud) also intend to run for president.

Ben-Eliezer yesterday took advantage of his meeting with Shas' spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to mention his intentions. The Minister Industry, Trade and Employment, Shas chairmatn Eli Yishai, also attended the meeting.

Sources close to Ben-Eliezer said he had not made up his mind whether to run. His aides said that he did not put himself forward as a candidate but agreed to consider it after it was raised by another party.

Sources in Yosef's house said the rabbi was not expected to endorse any of the candidates in the near future. However, Lau appears to be his favorite.

David Levy is also considering tendering his candidacy for president.