( AP ) - 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 and throw their support behind the country's elder statesman.
Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who has held all of Israel's top civilian posts, later advanced to a yes-or-no vote in parliament that was still in progress by midafternoon.
The ordinarily quiet contest has been closely watched 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 parliament's secret balloting 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 afterward, 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 the results were not surprising. Rivlin comes from a party with only 12 seats, and the lawmakers' desire to restore the presidency's prestige 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. He had been a shoo-in to win the post in 2000 - only to lose in a stunning upset to Katsav.
The office of the 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 female employees. Katsav has not been formally charged, pending a final hearing before the attorney general, but has stepped down temporarily to fight the allegations.
Peres, 83, threw his hat into the ring again last week.
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.
The vote for president came after former Prime Minister Ehud Barak won the leadership of the Labor Party in a dramatic political comeback. Tossed out of office six years ago in a humiliating election defeat, Barak beat former navy commander Ami Ayalon by more than 3 percentage points, party officials said Wednesday.
Barak now begins the race for the real prize - a return to the nation's top job, which he held for less than two years. But he is expected to bide his time, first remaining in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's coalition government to burnish his leadership credentials.