Livni Wins Party Vote to Succeed Olmert in Israel

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Sebastian Scheiner / AP

Israel's new Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni visits the party's calling center in Rishon Letzion on Sept. 17

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni won a narrow victory on Sept. 17 to become leader of the ruling Kadima Party, the first step in her bid to become the next Prime Minister.

Livni, 50, an earnest, straight-talking former lawyer, defeated her closest rival, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, an ex-general, by a 1.1% margin. Livni won 43.1% of the vote compared with Mofaz's 42%. It was so close that some Mofaz stalwarts are insisting on a recount. Voter turnout in the Kadima primaries was also so low that Israeli newspaper Haaretz noted acidly that 10 times as many Israelis turned out to cast their ballots for the country's version of American Idol as to pick the candidate likely to become the next premier.

Livni now has 42 days to cobble together a governing coalition. If she fails, Israel is likely to face general elections within three months.

The leadership battle inside the centrist Kadima Party erupted when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was pressured into resigning by his party after police said he faced a possible indictment for alleged fraud and bribery. Even before the corruption scandal broke, Olmert's standing in the polls was abysmally low; blamed for a disastrous military campaign in Lebanon in 2006, his approval rating sank to 3% in the war's aftermath and remained in the single digits. At an exhibition hall in Tel Aviv rented by Kadima on election night to handle the media and party faithful — and where press outnumbered supporters 3 to 1 — Olmert's portrait was conspicuously absent, much the way that U.S. President George W. Bush was relegated to near invisibility at the Republican Convention.

Olmert's aides say he is likely to step down on Sept. 21, after conferring with President Shimon Peres. On tour in the Negev desert while his party voted, Olmert told a group of students, "I decided to resign with pain, not with pleasure, I must say, really with pain." He added, less convincingly, "I have no bitterness, no anger." Olmert was hoping that the primaries race between Livni and Mofaz would be forced into a run-off, giving him a few extra weeks at the helm.

Livni wants Olmert out. She is eager to take over, telling her supporters after her win that she wants to form a new Cabinet "as quickly as possible in the face of serious threats facing Israel." Israel's generals say the nation's gravest threat is the possibility of a nuclear attack from Iran, though it now appears doubtful that Israel alone, without a green light from Washington, would launch an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.

Livni has her work cut out for her. In the days ahead, the new party head will try to lock up support from Kadima's current coalition partners — the dovish Labor Party, a group representing pensions and the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party — which could give her a slim majority in the 120-seat Knesset, or Israeli parliament. But Shas is making demands on Livni, such as pushing for an increase in child allowance (ultra-Orthodox families tend to be large) and making state education more religious. If Livni bends to Shas' demands, Labourites are threatening to walk out of her future coalition. But if she succeeds, she will become Israel's first woman Prime Minister since Gold Meir stepped down in 1974.

Knesset member Yitzhak Ben-Yisrael said he supported Livni's bid to become Kadima leader because "she was someone clean who believed in fair play." Livni, he says, is likely to pursue the U.S.-sponsored peace talks with the Palestinians. In interviews, Livni says she believes in a two-state solution with the Palestinians as the only way for Israel to remain a Jewish and democratic state. Yet she will face the same lack of support for the peace process among her hawkish coalition partners, and Kadima Party members, that thwarted Olmert.

Livni says one of her favorite hobbies is playing the drums. Her apartment neighbors are probably grateful that now that she is the leader of the Kadima Party and en route to becoming Prime Minister, she won't have time to bang away. But it will be one long drum roll in the weeks ahead to see if Livni can form a new governing coalition.

— With reporting by Aaron J. Klein / Tel Aviv

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