( AP ) - The race for the Israeli presidency has taken on a high-profile buzz, driven by rape allegations against the sitting president and elder statesman Shimon Peres' campaign to cap his six-decade government career with a term in the president's mansion.
Israel's parliament holds the secret vote for the mainly ceremonial post on Wednesday, when they will choose between Peres, of the ruling Kadima Party; Reuven Rivlin, lawmaker and former parliament speaker from the hawkish Likud; and legislator Colette Avital of the Labor Party.
The new president takes office July 15 for a seven-year term. To win, a candidate must collect 61 votes from the 120 lawmakers. If no one wins a majority, the top two vote-getters compete in an immediate runoff.
Political observers say the math adds up in Peres' favor - but because the balloting is secret, nothing is assured. The Nobel Peace Prize winner, who has suffered a string of electoral defeats, had been seen as a shoo-in to win the post in 2000, only to lose in a stunning upset to Moshe Katsav, a political backbencher with the blessing of a prominent rabbi.
The affable Rivlin is seen as a serious contender and women's rights champion Avital a long shot.
The office of president, originally conceived as a ceremonial post held by a prominent statesman or thinker, has been marred over allegations that Katsav raped or otherwise sexually assaulted four female employees.
Katsav, who denies all wrongdoing, has not been formally charged, pending a final hearing before Israel's attorney general but has stepped down temporarily to fight the allegations.
The race is being viewed as an opportunity to restore the presidency's lost luster.
"The prestige of this institution is badly damaged," said political science professor Gideon Doron of Tel Aviv University. "The question in my mind is who is going to bring back the reputation to this institution."
Peres, 83, threw his hat into the ring again last week, hoping to end his string of electoral defeats.
The spiritual leader who sealed his fate last time - Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party - has thrown his support to Peres, which should take him over the top this time, says political commentator Hanan Crystal, who calculates Peres will get close to 70 votes.
Peres, a top aide to Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, 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 never was elected prime minister outright, serving once in a caretaker role in the 1970s, and twice 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.
Still, the job is not in his pocket because the race is ultimately a political campaign for the legislature's 120 votes, Doron says.
"It's politics," he said. "It's a secret ballot ... so there's always uncertainty."