Jerusalem: Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni eked out a victory on Thursday in a surprisingly tight race to replace Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as head of Israel’s governing party, and said she would immediately turn to the task of trying to cobble together a new government.
Official results gave Livni, a political moderate, 43.1% of the vote in the Kadima Party primary elections, compared with 42% for Shaul Mofaz, a hawkish former military chief and defense minister, in a contest with far-reaching implications for peacemaking with the Palestinians and Syria. The results were much closer than the double-digit victory predicted by exit polls Wednesday night.
A fast-rising star in Israel’s political firmament, Livni is Israel’s lead negotiator in peace talks with the Palestinians and a rare female power figure in a nation dominated by macho military men and a religious establishment with strict views on the role of women.
A lawyer and former agent in the Mossad spy agency who entered politics nine years ago, she is eager to continue the low-decibel diplomatic efforts. She also says she hopes international diplomatic efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear program will prevail, though she says all options are on the table.
Livni’s victory puts her in a strong position to become Israel’s prime minister, though that is not guaranteed and the process could take weeks.
Olmert, who is being forced from office by a corruption scandal, must formally resign, a move that would dissolve the current coalition government. President Shimon Peres must then ask her to put together a new coalition. Livni says she wants to keep the coalition intact, but doing so will likely require tough negotiations over budget funds and Cabinet posts.
Olmert’s spokesman, Mark Regev, said the outgoing prime minister called Livni to congratulate her. He said Olmert would resign after the weekly meeting of his Cabinet Sunday, though he declined to discuss specific timing.
Livni said she would get a head start and launch informal coalition talks on Friday. Once she is formally assigned the task, she will have 42 days to form a new ruling coalition. If she succeeds, she will become Israel’s first female prime minister since Golda Meir stepped down in 1974. If she fails, the country will hold elections in early 2009, a year and a half ahead of schedule.
Olmert will remain as a caretaker leader until parliament approves a new Cabinet.
With opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline Likud Party polling well, neither Kadima nor its coalition partners appear eager for a new election. But with the Shas party, a key coalition partner, making tough demands, Livni will have to perform some deft political maneuvering to put together a government.
The ultra-Orthodox Shas has declared its opposition to sharing control of Jerusalem _ the holy city claimed by Israel and the Palestinians. As lead peace negotiator, Livni is committed to discussing all the outstanding issues between Israel and the Palestinians, and the future of Jerusalem is at the heart of the conflict.
Israel and the Palestinians originally had set a year-end goal for reaching a final peace accord when they resumed talks under US auspices late last year. But both sides acknowledge that target appears unreachable.
Three TV exit polls released just before the voting ended on Wednesday night showed a clear victory for Livni over Mofaz, about 47% to 37% leading to premature celebrations. But official results saw that margin shrink dramatically, to a 431-vote edge.
Livni needed 40% of the vote to avoid a runoff next week. Two other candidates, Cabinet minister Meir Sheetrit and former Shin Bet security service director Avi Dichter, lagged far behind in the vote count.