The battle to succeed Israel's disgraced president got under way Friday, with veteran statesman Shimon Peres in the lead so far to gain the prestigious post that slipped from his grasp seven years ago.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has proposed an amendment that would change the way parliament votes for the head of state from a secret to an open ballot -- a move thought to boost the chances of the election of the deputy prime minister to the seven-year post, a senior official said.
"Olmert wants to advance the candidacy of Shimon Peres" for the largely ceremonial post, the official said on condition of anonymity.
Olmert was due to propose his change at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, the official added.
In a shock defeat in July 2000, Nobel peace laureate Peres lost the contest for the presidency to Moshe Katsav of the right-wing Likud party, after the defection of one of the members of the then governing coalition.
Observers here say an open ballot boosts Peres's chances because it gives Olmert more power to impose vote discipline among deputies of his centrist Kadima party and its coalition members, who currently control 78 votes in the 120-seat Knesset.
Although his entourage has said Peres is interested in the president's post, he has not officially thrown his hat in the ring.
Knesset's house committee on Thursday approved a request by Katsav -- who became Israel's first president from a right-wing party following his win over Peres in 2000 -- to be temporarily suspended from his post.
Katsav asked for the leave after the attorney general announced he would indict him on a slew of charges including rape, sexual harassment and abuse of power.
Parliament speaker Dalia Yitzik is in the interim carrying out his duties -- the first woman president in the history of the Jewish state.
But although a fresh presidential election cannot take place until Katsav resigns or his mandate runs out in July, speculation has already started here on who could replace the disgraced leader.
In addition to Olmert's support, Peres thus far is the public's favourite, with between 40 and 45 percent of Israelis supporting the veteran politician for the post as the head of state, according to two polls released on Thursday.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has also expressed support, saying that she hoped Peres would be the future president of Israel during a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Thursday.
The 83-year-old is Israel's most veteran statesman, having served twice as premier, three times as foreign minister and three times as defence minister.
The Polish-born married father of three was one of the architects of the 1993 Oslo accords with the Palestinians, for which he shared the Nobel peace prize a year later with then premier Yitzak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
But whether he will get the top job is far from certain.
"With all due respect to Shimon Peres, this manner of trying to arrange things in his favour has failed several times," Eitan Cabel, minister without portfolio from Labour, told army radio Friday.
Gideon Saar, the Likud parliamentary faction chief, said on Thursday it was "brutal to change the rules of the game mid-game, solely to serve the political interests and needs of a particular candidate."
Peres's most stiff competition is expected to come from Likud MP Reuven Rivlin, who is known for good relations with parliamentarians of all stripes, but who has yet to indicate whether he will indeed seek the job.
Netanyahu: Katsav departure a 'sad day for Israel'
Former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it was a "sad day for Israel" to see President Moshe Katsav granted a leave of absence Thursday to fight rape allegations.
"This is a sad day for Israel because obviously our president is entitled to his day in court," the Israeli opposition leader said.
"Israel is a democracy and no-one is above the law, including our president."
"This is the whole point: we have courts, we have the rule of law," he told reporters in Portcullis House, part of the offices of the Houses of Parliament in London.