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Rumor-filled Israeli presidential race may heat up further

Israeli President Shimon Peres speaks during the World Economic Forum on the Middle East at the Dead Sea in Jordan on May 17, 2009. Credit: World Economic Forum/Nader Daoud.
Israeli President Shimon Peres speaks during the World Economic Forum on the Middle East at the Dead Sea in Jordan on May 17, 2009. Credit: World Economic Forum/Nader Daoud.

Israeli President Shimon Peres is retiring in July, capping a seven-year term and a nearly seven-decade political career in the Jewish state.  After replacing disgraced former President Moshe Katzav, who was convicted of rape in 2007, the younger-than-his-years Peres turned the largely ceremonial role of Israeli president into a pseudo-ambassadorial position, impressing dignitaries and celebrities around the world.

The lingering question now gripping Israeli society is: Who can possibly replace a man who got Sharon Stone to attend his 90th birthday party?

Vying for office in the June 10 election are candidates from both political and non-political backgrounds, but unlike the post of Israeli prime minister, which is determined by a popular vote and the formation of a governing coalition, the president is elected by the Knesset legislature.

As the presidential race heats up, several of the candidates have already reportedly been embroiled in controversies that might kill their chances—leaving the possibility of a rather unexpected result.

Binyamin Ben-Eliezer

MK Binyamin (Fuad) Ben-Eliezer (Labor), 78, is a former defense minister known for his good relations with Arab leaders such as former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“My expertise is taking an enemy and turning him into a friend,” Ben-Eliezer recently told the Associated Press.

But Ben-Eliezer’s recent need to undergo a kidney transplant might be a drawback for Netanyahu and Knesset members concerned about appointing a candidate with a serious health issue.

Last week, Ben-Eliezer also accused his political rivals of spying on him after the Channel 2 documentary show “Uvda” alleged that he regularly gambled in a London casino while he was defense minister, a rumor he has denied.

Reuven Rivlin

Former Knesset speaker MK Reuven Rivlin (Likud) is the preferred candidate of the Israeli public, with 32 percent support, according to a recent poll by the Times of Israel—but the public doesn’t vote in this election, and the poll may not translate to a favorable vote by a majority of the 120 Knesset members.

“[Rivlin] has no intention of trying to fill Shimon Peres’s shoes. He has his own shoes,” said Harel Tubi, a top Rivlin adviser.

Reports also indicate, however, that the 74-year-old Rivlin has a tense relationship with Netanyahu and is therefore not his preferred candidate.

Dalia Dorner

A perceived long-shot candidate is Dalia Dorner, a former Supreme Court judge, who takes pride in running as a woman.

“I decided it was time for Israel to have a female president,” Dorner said during a lecture at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, according to the Times of Israel.

“Even if I’m not chosen, it will open the door for future generations of candidates,” she added.

Meir Sheetrit

Another long-shot candidate is MK Meir Sheetrit (Hatnuah), a former finance minister. Sheetrit heavily criticized recent media coverage of the presidential election, arguing that outlets have been publishing a variety of rumors about the candidates that were allegedly instigated by rival candidates. He has denied being among the candidates who have spread the rumors.

“I don’t remember presidential elections such as this… Whoever is doing that should be disqualified,” Sheetrit told the weekend edition of Ma’ariv, as translated from Hebrew.

“In the election, the candidate elected should be the candidate who will best represent Israel in terms of his education, impression, and international presence,” he said.

Silvan Shalom

MK Silvan Shalom (Likud), also the current Minister of Energy and Water, was a viable candidate until an investigation was launched into an allegation of sexual harassment by one of his female employees. Some analysts have expressed a similar view to that of Shitreet, that the allegations have been conjured by political rivals. Although Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein officially closed the sex-crimes investigation against Shalom, the minister has been tainted by the allegation and will likely step out of the race, reported The Jerusalem Post, which cited political officials.

Dalia Itzik

MK Dalia Itzik (Kadima), like Rivlin, is a former Knesset speaker. Her family immigrated to Israel from Iraq in 1950.

The Jewish state has attracted people “from all over the world, that together make a colorful and marvelous mosaic,” Itzik wrote in Ma’ariv last week. “Despite all the difficulties that this combination brings, and the effort it takes to keep all these different parts together, this is the only place where I feel at home. The Jewish home,” she wrote.

The wild cards: Yosef Abramowitz and Dan Shechtman

Yosef Abramowitz and Dan Shechtman are considered unconventional candidates in this race.

Shechtman is a professor at Technion and a 2011 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry. Asked to address his lack of political experience in an interview with Channel 1, he said his inexperience does not mean he lacks vision, adding that his desire to become president comes from being a Zionist.

The 50-year-old Abramowitz, who announced his candidacy in a May 8 op-ed for The Jerusalem Post, was born in the U.S. and is CEO of Energiya Global Capital, a Jerusalem-based solar energy firm. He has developed a reputation as a pioneer in green energy and has been nominated three times for the Nobel Peace prize for his work with the United Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union. Fun fact: his sister-in-law is comedian Sarah Silverman.

“We need to change the model of the presidency, from a retirement home for aging politicians to an institution devoted to a just society at home and ramping up Israel’s ‘soft power’ abroad,” Abramowitz wrote in his op-ed.

Both Shechtman and Abramowitz are perceived as long-shots to win due to their non-political backgrounds. Some others are being considered for a possible nomination by Netanyahu, such as Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel Natan Sharansky, the famed former Soviet dissident. Neither Sharansky nor other rumored candidates have officially expressed an interest in the post.

Meanwhile, the announcement that Shalom is likely to pull out of the race might boost the chances of the long-shot candidates. According to the latest report on the subject by Israel Hayom, only Rivlin, Ben-Eliezer, and Sheetrit have already secured the 10 signatures from Knesset members required for official candidacy.

Interested in what happens next? For a while, it seemed all the intrigue and juicy speculation surrounding this race may have been all for naught. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was recently reported to be advancing legislation to postpone the election for six months—a presumed precursor to pushing through additional legislation that would eliminate the ceremonial position of president altogether.

But for now, with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein on May 19 announcing the election date of June 10, the race goes on.

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