By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The race to succeed Shimon Peres as Israel's president began officially on Monday, after what was widely seen as a bid by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to abolish the post and its king-making potential.
Legislators will elect a new president on June 10, Speaker of Parliament Yuli Edelstein announced. At least five candidates are expected to vie for the position of head of state, in a contest that Edelstein said had already begun with smears against several likely contenders.
"The post of president of Israel is important, and it is aimed at healing rifts in the nation ... This hasn't been the kind of campaign we wanted to see," Edelstein said.
Raising eyebrows among political pundits, Netanyahu floated a trial balloon on the future of the presidency while visiting Japan last week. Political sources said Netanyahu - who has not commented publicly on the issue - left key advisers at home to sound out cabinet colleagues on suspending the pending poll and evaluating the need for the position.
Some political analysts linked the maneuver, which was roundly rejected in Facebook postings by top ministers, to the candidacy of a member of Netanyahu's own Likud party with whom he has had a rocky relationship.
Reuven Rivlin, a former speaker of parliament who formally entered the race on Monday, has a reputation for political independence in the Likud. An opinion poll last week named him as a front-runner.
A Rivlin victory in the campaign to succeed the 90-year-old Peres could make Netanyahu more vulnerable in a general election. Israeli law grants the head of state the power to choose a legislator to try to put together a government.
No one party has ever won an outright parliamentary majority in a national poll. That makes the president - whose duties are usually largely ceremonial - a key player in coalition-building.
In a letter to fellow legislators on Monday, Rivlin, 74, stressed "the importance of a president as a builder of bridges between parties in dispute".
"If the Knesset is the home of debate, controversy and decision, President's House is the home of cooperation, dialogue and compromise," he wrote.
Rivlin, a lawyer, was first elected to parliament in 1988 and served as communications minister between 2001 and 2003. Others who have voiced interest in standing as president include former Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, former Finance Minister Meir Sheetrit and Nobel chemistry prize laureate Dan Shechtman.
Peres, Israel's most respected statesman, has been president since 2007. He took over from Moshe Katsav, who was convicted of rape in 2010 and is serving a seven-year prison term.
On Monday, the Supreme Court rejected Katsav's petition for a re-trial, saying the testimony of a woman he was convicted of raping was credible, while his was not.
(Editing by Larry King)