Peres bids for dignified end to 40 years of power

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The Independent Online

Shimon Peres, the former Israeli prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner, will seek today to begin the swan song of his four-decade political career by being elected the country's president.

Shimon Peres, the former Israeli prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner, will seek today to begin the swan song of his four-decade political career by being elected the country's president.

He resigned his seat in the Knesset yesterday, where he has sat since 1959, to prepare to contest the largely honorary position, which will be decided by parliamentary vote this morning.

If he wins, Mr Peres, 76, will succeed Ezer Weizman, another grizzled veteran of the Israeli political élite, who resigned in disgrace last month with three years left of his term, his career marred by a scandal in which he admitted accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars from a foreign businessman.

Like the famously outspoken Mr Weizman, Mr Peres is a controversial figure, a Labour leader despised by the Israeli right. As Foreign Minister, he shared the 1994 Nobel prize with Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin after putting his signature to the 1993 Oslo Agreement. His advocacy of peace with the Palestinians is well known; less is said about his decision in 1996 to launch the notorious "Grapes of Wrath" offensive in south Lebanon in a vain attempt to defeat Hizbollah.

His opponent is the Iranian-born Moshe Katzav, 55, from Likud. Although Mr Katzav has spent a long stint in the Knesset - and has held various unglamorous ministries (transport, tourism, Israeli-Arab affairs) - he is a relative unknown.

As the elder statesman in the race, Mr Peres is therefore the favourite to become Israel's eighth president. He has held the cream of the big political jobs - prime minister, defence, foreign, finance, and more. He twice succeeded Yitzhak Rabin as premier, in 1977, and then after his assassination in 1995. But a Peres victory is not a foregone conclusion. His rival is religious and Sephardi - which will make him attractive to the Shas party, a power-broker in the Knesset. And Mr Peres is suspected of being incapable of staying clear of the political action, and sticking to the president's tedious programme of ceremonial duties.

Although as regional cooperation minister Mr Peres is in Mr Barak's cabinet, little love is lost between them. Mr Peres is known to have strong views on what the current premier should be doing to escape crisis. And he also has an alarming habit of losing. He is the only Labour leader to lose five elections.

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