JERUSALEM (Mar. 21)
Yaacov Tsur, one of the two front runners in the race for Israel’s presidency withdrew today. His principal rival, Deputy Knesset Speaker Yitzhak Navon, may pull out by tomorrow, clearing the way for the candidacy of Prof. Ephraim Katchalski of the Weizmann Institute of Science who has emerged as the choice of some of the most powerful leaders of the Labor Party. A fourth candidate, Supreme Court Justice Eliahu Mani, appeared on the verge of withdrawal.
Prof. Katchalski, a 57-year-old Russian-born biophysicist who is presently visiting the United States, has reportedly agreed to accept the nomination. The Labor Party’s 620-member Central Committee will meet in Tel Aviv tomorrow night to select a presidential nominee by secret ballot. The Labor Party’s choice is virtually assured of election when the Knesset votes May 25 to choose a successor to President Zalman Shazar.
Navon, a leader of the Sephardic community who is immensely popular in the Knesset, was considered the front runner in the presidential race until yesterday when Dr. Katchalski’s name came up publicly for the first time. Navon told reporters today that he was considering his position, adding, “As long as I haven’t withdrawn it my candidacy still stands.” Informed circles here believe that he will withdraw by the time the Central Committee is ready to vote tomorrow.
Tsur’s pull-out came as a surprise. The president of the Jewish National Fund and former Israeli Ambassador to France, Tsur was believed to have been Premier Golda Meir?s personal choice for the presidency. But Mrs. Meir said last week that she would not intervene in her party’s choice.
It was reported yesterday that Dr. Katchalski was contacted by telephone in Boston by members of a six-man committee of Labor Party leaders’ assigned the task of recommending a candidate to the Central Committee. It was not known who spoke to the scientist but he is believed to have been contacted by Israel Galili, Minister-Without-Portfolio, who is a member of the Party’s inner circle and possibly by Finance Minister Pinhas Sapir. All but one of the six committee members were reported today to favor Katchalski. The lone holdout was Transport Minister Shimon Peres who continued to back his old friend Navon.
Navon, like Peres, belongs to the Labor Party’s Rafi faction. The Rafi wing of the Party, accused the Mapai and Achdut Avoda factions today of deliberately trying to destroy Navon’s candidacy because of his Rafi background. Sapir, Galili and others have denied this. But the sudden emergence of Katchalski as a “dark horse” indicated a split within the Labor Party.