JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli legislators were choosing a new president on Tuesday, with two finalists inching closer to succeeding the outgoing Shimon Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who brought the position international prestige.
Veteran lawmaker Reuven Rivlin received 44 votes after the first round of voting was held in the 120-seat parliament. Longtime legislator Meir Sheetrit garnered 31 votes. The other votes were spread between three other candidates. Since no one captured a 61-seat majority, a second round was to be held.
The winner will have big shoes to fill, after Peres, 90, steps down. Peres, whose political career stretches back decades and who has been an outspoken proponent of peace with the Palestinians, brought the office international renown. He also restored honor to the position, which was tarnished after his predecessor, Moshe Katsav, was forced to step down by a sex scandal. Katsav is now in prison after being convicted of rape.
Rivlin and Sheetrit are well known figures in Israel, where each have spent decades as lawmakers and Cabinet ministers. But they are far less known on the global stage.
Tuesday's voting caps a nasty presidential campaign that saw mudslinging, political intrigue and scandals that forced two hopefuls to pull out of the running.
The largely ceremonial office of president is typically filled by a respected elder statesman who is expected to rise above politics and serve as a moral compass for the country.
Rivlin, though a popular former parliament speaker, has opposed the creation of a Palestinian state — a potential liability that could put him at odds with the international community and even with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The 74-year-old Rivlin says his popularity and ability to connect to all elements of Israeli society make him most suitable for the role.
"I have gone through many steps. Today this is a very central one where I can end one path and start an additional one," Rivlin told Army Radio ahead of the vote.
Sheetrit is a member of the dovish "Movement" party, headed by Israel's peace negotiator Tzipi Livni.
Like Livni, he is a former member of the Likud who moderated his views over time and believes that the establishment of a Palestinian state is critical for ensuring Israel's survival as a democracy with a Jewish majority. Sheetrit, 65, has held a number of Cabinet portfolios including finance and justice.
He told Israeli Channel 2 TV that his chances in the second round were "excellent." The runoff vote was to be held later Tuesday.
The lead-up to the vote was overshadowed by a number of scandals.
One hopeful, Silvan Shalom, chose not to run after accusations of sexual misconduct toward a former aide surfaced.
And over the weekend, candidate Binyamin Ben-Eliezer was forced to drop out of the race after he was investigated for graft.
Netanyahu's public standing also has taken a hit during the campaign due to his attempts to shape the race and block Rivlin's candidacy. He and Rivlin are longtime rivals in the Likud.
While most political power is held by the prime minister, the president plays several key roles in Israel.
Most critically, the president chooses a member of parliament, or Knesset, to form a majority coalition after elections. This has usually been the leader of the party with the most seats in parliament. But with the rise of a number of midsize parties in parliament, the next president could theoretically have more influence over choosing the country's prime minister.
The other candidates included Dalia Dorner, a former Supreme Court judge. Former parliamentary speaker Dalia Itzik and Nobel Prize in Chemistry winner Dan Shechtman also vied for the job.