Peres elected Israel president

TEL AVIV (AFP) — Veteran statesman Shimon Peres was elected president of Israel on Wednesday, finally winning his first vote for top office and crowning a record-breaking career spanning more than half a century.The sole candidate in a second round vote held in parliament after his rival contenders dramatically quit the race, Peres’ victory was a triumph that laid to rest the ghosts of seven years ago when he famously lost the same ballot.

Elected by a landslide 86 votes to 23 in a result announced by parliament speaker Dalia Itzik and greeted by a spontaneous outburst of applause, he had been assured victory after rivals Reuven Rivlin and Colette Avital pulled out.

Wearing a white skullcap, the 83-year-old Nobel peace laureate gave a stirring speech vowing to unite the country as he stood before magnificent wall tapestries designed by artist Marc Chagall in the parliamentary lobby.

“From this moment on, I intend to be the representative of the entire nation and I will devote myself entirely to its service,” he said, visibly moved as he bid farewell to parliament where he has been a member for 48 consecutive years.

“The president’s role is to embody the unity of the people,” he told the assembled gathering of dignitaries, among them Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who feted the ninth president of Israel and outgoing lawmaker.

The nation “wishes to mark its deep appreciation for the unparalleled life of a man who has been present at every important moment in the history of the country”, said Olmert.

After the ceremony, Peres went to East Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, and slipped a letter inside a gap in the face of the wall in keeping with Jewish religious tradition.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, meanwhile, telephoned Peres to congratulate him and urge Israel to join Cairo in its efforts to revive a peace process in the Middle East, Egypt’s MENA news agency reported.

Peres’ election was the crowning triumph in a record-breaking career of an octogenarian who has held just about every major office in a career with a political pedigree second to none and stretching back five decades.

Admired abroad far more than at home, supporters say his international prestige could lift the presidency out of disgrace with two consecutive incumbents forced out by scandal, latterly Moshe Katsav accused of rape.

Peres, the two-time prime minister who has never won a national election, has said the presidency could be his last service to Israel but had been cautious about victory, saying it would take “God’s help” to win.

In the July 2000 presidential election, Peres was widely expected to win, only to watch in shock as the then obscure Katsav, from Likud, beat him for the prize after the surprise defection of ultra-Orthodox MPs.

Peres’ humiliating defeat — and his loss in 2005 of the Labour leadership — sealed his image as the perennial loser after failing to lead his party to victory in parliamentary elections in 1977, 1981, 1984, 1988 and 1996.

But his age and decades of public service led many to appeal to lawmakers to grant him Israel’s highest, if largely ceremonial public office.

Peres commands great respect abroad, including for his role in the 1993 Oslo accords with the Palestinians that awarded him, former premier Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize.

One of his first top public jobs was as director general of the defence ministry, a post to which he was appointed at the tender age of 29 and held for seven years, until his election to parliament in 1959.

During his career, he has held a string of top posts, including the foreign and defence portfolios, and is considered the father of the Jewish state’s biggest deterrent — its suspected but undeclared nuclear weapons programme.

Following his loss of the Labour leadership in 2005, he joined the new centrist Kadima Party founded by former premier Ariel Sharon, who suffered a massive stroke just weeks later.

Peres also dedicates much of his time to promoting peace between Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab world through his Peres Centre for Peace, which hopes to build an infrastructure for peace by promoting socio-economic development.

Born in 1923 in what was then Poland but is now Belarus, Peres emigrated to Palestine when he was 11. He speaks English and French as well as Hebrew. He and his wife Sonya have three children and six grandchildren.

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