JERUSALEM — Shimon Peres helped build the Israeli army, repeatedly served as prime minister in difficult times and won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts at ending the conflict with the Palestinians.
At 83, the elder statesman was chosen as Israel’s ninth president Wednesday — shattering an embarrassing record of electoral defeats — and pledged he will work to unify the country and restore the dignity of the largely ceremonial office tainted by rape allegations against his predecessor.
Peres won the support of 86 of parliament’s 120 members in a second-round vote in Israel’s parliament, or Knesset. His two competitors, Reuven Rivlin of the hawkish Likud Party and Colette Avital of the dovish Labor Party, withdrew from the race after Peres seized a commanding lead in the first round of balloting.
He will be sworn into office on July 15 for a seven-year term, replacing the disgraced Moshe Katsav, who faces multiple allegations of sexual assault against female staffers in the president’s mansion.
“The president’s role is not to deal with politics and partisanship, but to represent what unites us in a strong voice,” Peres said in a speech following his victory. “I am touched, emotional and even embarrassed by this selection of the Knesset.”
Peres, currently vice premier in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government, declared his candidacy just two weeks ago by saying it “may be my last chance to serve the country.”
Peres’ six-decade career mirrors that of the Jewish state.
“It seems as if you can’t think about the state of Israel, without thinking about Shimon Peres,” Parliament Speaker Dalia Itzik said as she turned toward Peres in announcing the victory. “You were there from the start.”
Peres has filled nearly every position in Israeli public life since he became the director general of the Defense Ministry at the age of 25 and spearheaded the development of Israel’s nuclear program. A protege of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, Peres became a politician in his own right in 1959, when he was elected to parliament.
He has since held every major Cabinet post — including minister of defense, finance and foreign affairs — and served three brief stints as prime minister. His key role in the first Israeli-Palestinian peace accord earned him a Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 and unprecedented stature abroad as a revered statesman.
But his resume has always been tainted by his repeated electoral defeats at home.
He was first propelled into the premiership in a caretaker role in 1977 after Yitzhak Rabin resigned. Later that year, and again in 1981, he lost national elections to Menachem Begin of Likud. Between 1984 and 1986, Peres served a two-year term as prime minister before being replaced by his rival Yitzhak Shamir in an unusual arrangement after the two deadlocked in elections. In 1988, Peres lost to Shamir outright.
In 1992, he lost the Labor party leadership to Rabin, then stepped in to replace him after he was assassinated in 1995. That term ended seven months later following Peres’ 1996 surprise defeat in the premier’s race to Benjamin Netanyahu.
In 2000, Peres was seen as a shoo-in to win the presidency, only to lose in a stunning upset to Katsav.
For nearly all his political life, Peres had been a member of Israel’s founding Labor Party. But he bolted in 2005 after he lost the party leadership to Amir Peretz in yet another upset. Peres joined the new, centrist Kadima Party, founded by longtime friend and political rival, Ariel Sharon. He backed Olmert after Sharon suffered a stroke in January 2006.
Peres has been bruised, but never broken by his political defeats. He appeared visibly joyous after earning the first major victory of his political life Wednesday. He said he was ready to take on a new role after 48 years in parliament.
“I don’t see the presidency as a continuation of my previous roles, but as more of a spiritual role,” he said.
In his speech, Peres — a father of three, grandfather of eight and great-grandfather of two — thanked his family and his colleagues, both past and present, and singled out three — Ben-Gurion, Rabin and Sharon.
Inside and outside parliament, Peres’ selection was viewed as his redemption.
“Internationally, he is the most well-known Israeli in the world today. He is from the founding generation and he is a symbol for us,” said lawmaker Isaac Herzog, the son of Israel’s sixth president, Chaim Herzog. “For him, this is the closing of a circle.”