JERUSALEM — Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni early today was one step closer to becoming Israel's first female prime minister in 34 years, after winning a tight race for leadership of the ruling Kadima party.
Livni defeated her top rival, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, by a mere 431 votes, according to the head of Kadima's primary committee.
The results were close enough that some in Mofaz's camp were publicly pushing for him to demand a recount. However, the 59-year-old Mofaz, a tough-talking former general, called Livni early today to congratulate her.
Earlier, Livni supporters had rejoiced over her lead, and outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called his former deputy with congratulations after all three main Israeli TV channels announced exit poll results giving Livni 47% to 49% of the vote. Then Kadima party officials said the vote count appeared far closer than almost anyone expected. She ended up with 43.1% to Mofaz's 42%. Two other candidates got the rest of the votes.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, September 19, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 55 words Type of Material: Correction
Israeli elections: An article in Thursday's A section about the election of Tzipi Livni as Kadima party leader said that, if she becomes prime minister, Livni would have 90 days to assemble a government or would face a general election. If the president designates her as prime minister, that period actually would be 42 days.
The Yediot Aharonot newspaper had printed a second edition with a front-page headline declaring a "close struggle" instead of a sweeping Livni victory.
If the 50-year-old Livni becomes prime minister, she would be the first woman to hold the post since Golda Meir.
Kadima lost its iconic founder in 2006 when Ariel Sharon suffered a stroke and is emerging from the messy spectacle of Olmert facing multiple corruption investigations.
Olmert is expected to continue as a caretaker prime minister until Livni can assemble a new coalition government to finish his term through 2010.
If Livni forms a government, it will take up the mantle of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority on a two-state solution -- talks Livni has headed since they began almost a year ago.
Although the negotiations have shown almost no public signs of progress, and Palestinian officials have sounded pessimistic for months, the talks under Livni could gain momentum.
But first comes the deal making and coalition building. Other Israeli party leaders wasted no time Wednesday cranking up the familiar Israeli pre-coalition chatter of bargaining and veiled threats.
"If Livni wants a government, she needs to comply with our demands," Shas Party head Eli Yishai told the daily paper Haaretz.
Yishai's right-wing party often plays a key role in Israeli coalition building; its demands generally include increased welfare payments for families with multiple children, a minimum of territorial concessions to the Palestinians and a promise never to negotiate over dividing Jerusalem.
Others warned that Livni should not cut too many deals with the right-wingers and compromise herself in the process.
Representatives of the left-center Labor Party, Kadima's main coalition partner under Olmert, hinted that their participation in a Livni-led coalition was not guaranteed.
"If she gives in to Shas' extortion and freezes the peace process, Labor would be committing suicide to join a government like this," said Ophir Pines-Paz, a Labor member of the Knesset, or parliament.
Livni will have 90 days to assemble a coalition, and failure to do so would bring on a new set of national elections. Most polls show that the right-wing Likud party under Benjamin Netanyahu would defeat both Kadima and Labor, and the Likud members are already clamoring for elections as soon as possible.
A common refrain among Likud critics Wednesday night was that the number of votes cast in the Kadima primary, an estimated 38,000 to 40,000, doesn't constitute a mandate to lead the Jewish state.
"I think [Livni] should go to the people and ask for their confidence in elections," said Likud parliament member Gilad Erdan, who compared the voter turnout to a decent crowd at the local soccer stadium.
The Kadima leader's best hope for fending off Likud will be to successfully form a coalition and govern effectively, putting off the election while building public support. If a final agreement with the Palestinians is reached, the next election could serve as a referendum on that deal.
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Israel's Kadima party held a primary election Wednesday to replace Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as its leader. A brief look at the two main candidates:
Birthplace: Tel Aviv
Family: Married with two children
Experience: Current foreign minister and former minister of justice and of housing. Livni is widely rumored to have worked for the Mossad in her youth, although accounts of her exact activities vary widely. She rose quickly through the ranks of the Likud party under the wing of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. When Sharon left the Likud to form the Kadima party in 2005, he appointed Livni as his foreign minister. She is regarded as a political moderate compared with Shaul Mofaz.
Quote: "Nobody, nobody can afford in the region a terror state, a failed state or an extreme Islamic state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea." (Aug. 21, 2008)