Barak Survives a Challenge, Faces Another

Earlier Monday, Peres, a former prime minister, was defeated by Iranian-born Moshe Katsav, a legislator from Likud, in a stunning upset. Peres had been considered a shoo-in and was the clear favorite of the Israeli public, according to informal opinion surveys.

Israel’s presidency is largely ceremonial, but the incumbent — Ezer Weizman, who was forced to resign because of fraud allegations — has used the prestige of the post in support of Mideast peace efforts.

Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who led his reluctant nation to negotiations with the Palestinians in 1993, had been expected to turn the presidency into a platform for assisting the negotiators.

Hawkish legislators said today’s presidential vote was a protest against Barak’s peace policies and that they did not expect his government to survive much longer.

“I think this is another stage in the revolution that will take place in the next few months when there will be elections and the right-wing camp will return to power,” said Shaul Yahalom of the National Religious Party, one of three factions that quit Barak’s coalition ahead of this month’s inconclusive Mideast summit at Camp David.

Responding to the no-confidence motion, Barak told parliament he still enjoys the broad backing of the Israeli people. He acknowledged that at the moment he does not have a majority in parliament for a peace agreement, but said he expects the mood to shift under public pressure once an actual accord is presented.

“The people of Israel will see who does not want a responsible government that will take the country forward,” he told opposition legislators.

People’s Favorite, Denied

Peres had been the front-runner in the race for president, and was the public’s favorite. However, in two rounds of voting today, Katsav won 63 votes in the 120-member parliament, compared to only 57 for Peres.

After the first round, Peres wandered slowly back into the plenum, his hands in his pocket and an expression of shock and hurt on his face.

Legislator Eli Goldschmidt of Peres’ One Israel faction said it was difficult to see the pain of Israel’s elder statesman. “Apparently, a person’s greatness does not necessarily translate into an ability to win elections,” he said.

Katsav, the jubilant winner, promised in an acceptance speech to promote national unity — a difficult task in Israel, a nation rife with divisions between rich and poor, religious and secular, Jews and Arabs, new immigrants and veteran residents.

Katsav started his career as Israel’s youngest mayor in 1969, when he was 24. He was elected to the parliament in 1977 and rose to tourism minister and deputy prime minister. Born in Iran, he presented himself as the representative of Israelis of Middle East origin.

A Topsy-Turvy Political Career

Peres had counted on the support of many of the 22 religious lawmakers. When he was prime minister, his governments were consistently generous to the ultra-Orthodox, a chronically impoverished sector of Israel’s society; in addition, Peres’ wife, Sonya, is herself Orthodox.

However, officials in the ultra-Orthodox Shas party said all 17 legislators of the faction supported Katsav. They said that on Sunday, Shas’ spiritual leader, nonagenarian Rabbi Yitzhak Kadouri, had a vision that Katsav was favored by the heavens. As a result, Kadouri’s aides called nearly all legislators and urged them to vote for Katsav.

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