Who Will Follow Olmert as Israeli Prime Minister?

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Dan Balilty / Pool / AP

Kadima party leadership candidates, Israeli Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, left, and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

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The Iranian-born Mofaz, 60, is selling himself to Kadima voters as a longtime soldier ever-vigilant against Israel's enemies in the region. Mofaz distinguished himself through battlefield bravery as a corporal and then rose through the ranks to become army chief of staff and, later, Defense Minister. Officers who served with Mofaz praise his diligence, but say he lacks vision and flexibility.

Each candidate is likely to seek different allies in order to forge a coalition. Mofaz would be expected to try to form a coalition with parties to the right. But that would not include the Likud party of Benyamin Netanyahu, the hawkish ex-premier who wants to hasten Kadima's demise because he thinks — and polls agree — that he would win a general election. Livni, by contrast, would tilt Kadima leftward, scooping up the far-left party Meretz and possibly an ultra-orthodox party, to gain a slim majority in the 120-seat Knesset.

If the new Kadima leader fails to form a viable coalition, Olmert will run a caretaker government until a general election is held, most likely in January. In recent days, Olmert has stunned Israelis by speaking forcefully about the urgent need to withdraw Jewish settlements from the Palestinian territories. Political advisers say he may try to demolish a few outposts as a way to speed along the peace process before he departs in disgrace.

The fact that Kadima must choose between two leaders who would take the party in substantially different directions is a product of the party's origins: Like Jewish mythology's Golem, a living creature of clay who carries out its master's bidding, the party was molded as a personal political vehicle by Ariel Sharon. But when, in January 2006, Sharon lapsed into a coma from which he has not recovered, the party lost its identity. Sharon's deputy and successor, Olmert, drove the party into the ground with scandals and a disastrous military campaign in Lebanon in 2006. It remains to be seen whether Kadima's next leader, be it Livni or Mofaz, can keep the vision of a centrist party of pragmatic peace alive in a country so polarized between right and left, secular and religious, Jew and Arab.

With reporting by Aaron J. Klein/Tel Aviv

(See photos of Israel at 60 here.)

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