Israel's new season of political turmoil kicks off on Wednesday when the ruling Kadima party stages a primary to choose a leader to replace Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The beleaguered Olmert is resigning as party chairman after being mired in a quicksand of corruption allegations, but Wednesday's primaries are expected to begin a protracted period of political jockeying in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, as the new Kadima leader seeks to build a governing coalition.
Olmert's replacement as Kadima chief can take over from him as prime minister only with the endorsement of Kadima's coalition partners who range from the more dovish Labor Party to a party dedicated to pensioners and another representing the ultra-Orthodox. Without their backing, the Kadima-led government will tumble, and Israel could face new elections by early 2009.
The frontrunner in Kadima, according to the latest Haaretz-Channel 10 polls, is Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni with 47% of the party vote. Her nearest rival, the more hawkish Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz has only 28% according to the poll. (To win the party leadership in the first-round primary, the top candidate must win at least 40% of the vote.)
The contrast between the two leading candidates seems to offer the voters a clear choice: Livni, 50, is an elegant but often humorless lawyer who did a brief stint in Europe as a Mossad agent. She is committed to seeking peace with the Palestinians, based on a two-state solution, and she is admired by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, among others, for her level-headedness and tenacity. A mother of three who lives in a modest Tel Aviv apartment, Livni's image as "Mrs. Clean" resonates with Israelis tired of the sleaze associated with Olmert, the target of long police investigations into suspected fraud and bribery.