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Shimon Peres hopes to cap six-decade government career with Israeli presidency

Shimon Peres all-but clinched the race for Israel's presidency Wednesday after he seized a commanding lead in the first round of voting, prompting his two rivals to withdraw from the contest and throw their support to the country's elder statesman.

Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who has hold all of Israel's top civilian posts, later advanced to a yea-or-nay vote that was still in progress in mid-afternoon.

The ordinarily ho-hum contest has taken on a high-profile buzz because of Peres' campaign to cap his six-decade political career with a term in the president's mansion, and rape allegations against the sitting president, Moshe Katsav.

Peres, of the ruling Kadima Party, received an unexpectedly high 58 votes in round one. Reuven Rivlin, a lawmaker and former parliament speaker from the hawkish Likud, took 37, and legislator Colette Avital of the Labor Party, 21.

Shortly after the votes were tallied, Avital announced she would not advance to a second round, and Labor said it would throw its support to Peres, who spent most of his political career in that party.

Shortly afterwards, a weeping Rivlin said he, too, would pull out of the contest, and asked the legislature to unanimously back Peres. Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, a fierce critic of the dovish Peres, said his party, too, would vote for him.

The new president takes office July 15, for a seven-year term.

Political science professor Gideon Doron of Tel Aviv University said he was not surprised by the results. Rivlin comes from a party with only 12 seats in the legislature, and the lawmakers' desire to restore something of the presidency's prestige ultimately prevailed over political differences, he said.

The lawmakers also made a sentimental choice, Doron said, feeling that after a long string of electoral defeats Peres finally deserved to win.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner had been seen as a shoo-in to win the post in 2000 - only to lose in a stunning upset to the now-disgraced Moshe Katsav, a political backbencher with the blessing of a prominent rabbi.

The office of president, conceived as a ceremonial post held by a prominent statesman or thinker, has been marred by allegations that Katsav raped or otherwise sexually assaulted four women employees. Katsav has not been formally charged, pending a final hearing before Israel's attorney general, but has stepped down temporarily to fight the allegations.

Peres, 83, threw his hat into the ring again last week.

The spiritual leader who sealed his fate last time, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, has backed Peres, and that apparently took him over the top this time.

A top aide to Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, Peres was elected to parliament in 1959, then held a series of top posts, including the premiership, as well as minister of defense, finance and foreign affairs.

But he was never elected prime minister outright, serving once in a caretaker role in the 1970s, and once in the 1980s under a rotation agreement with political opponent Yitzhak Shamir after a general election failed to produce a clear winner. He served as premier again in the 1990s after Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist.

Age has not been a negative factor in the race, and if anything, Peres is widely seen as having the gravitas the position demands.