Former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni speaks at political-economic… (Abdelhak Senna / AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Jerusalem — Many people expected Tzipi Livni to become Israel's first female prime minister since Golda Meir.
After her high-profile stint as foreign minister, the centrist Kadima party she heads won more votes than any other in elections last year. International leaders praised her as a new-style Israeli politician who could finally make peace with the Palestinians.
Yet things aren't working out that way for Livni. Rather than making history, the 51-year-old is fighting for her political life.
As Israel's first female opposition leader, Livni is supposed to be leading the campaign to unseat the government, but she's the one under fire.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, her right-wing rival from the Likud Party who snatched the top job when Livni was unable to form a government, is trying to lure away Kadima lawmakers.
Meanwhile, Livni's No. 2 in Kadima, Shaul Mofaz, has launched a blistering campaign to unseat her, saying her leadership is damaging the country and alleging vote-rigging in the primary that installed Livni as party head.
Skeptics are calling Kadima, which burst onto the scene in 2005 as an alternative to Likud and the liberal Labor Party, a flash in the pan.
"It's amazing that Kadima has survived as long as it has," said Gadi Wolsfeld, a Hebrew University political science professor.
In an interview, Livni scoffed at any dire predictions and dismissed Mofaz's allegations as a power play. She noted that Kadima remains the largest party in parliament -- by one seat -- and continues to score well in polls.
"People in the street come to us and say, 'Don't give up. We need this hope,' " she said. "This is major energy for us. I'm not going to advocate for my leadership. It's not for me to say. Ask the 750,000 people who voted for Kadima and made it the biggest party."
When it was created by Israeli leader Ariel Sharon, Kadima transformed Israel's political landscape by injecting a centrist party between the two traditional heavyweights. Sharon left Likud and formed Kadima after colleagues moved to oust him in part over his controversial withdrawal of settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip.
Kadima's ideology, combining tough talk on security and a willingness to trade land for peace, struck a chord with voters.
But after a pair of strokes left Sharon incapacitated, it has faltered. His successor as party leader and prime minister, Ehud Olmert, announced his resignation in 2008 amid fraud allegations.
What's left, political analysts say, is a hodgepodge of politicians who left their parties to follow Sharon, but now are fighting over Kadima's course and leadership.
"The glue holding Kadima together is unclear," said Ofer Kenig, with the Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank. "When they were in government, [they had] an incentive to preserve and maintain the bond. Now, in the opposition, comes the real test of strength."
Others say Kadima might be a victim of its own success. The popularity of the centrist movement helped pull Likud and Labor toward the political middle, raising questions about whether a centrist party is still needed.
Netanyahu surprised many last year by endorsing the creation of a Palestinian state for the first time. And Labor had joined his coalition, despite Likud's right-wing tendencies.
Many people, including lawmakers inside Kadima, say the differences between Kadima and the government are now so small that they question why Livni refuses to join.
But Livni said she has doubts about whether Netanyahu's government is prepared to make the compromises needed to achieve peace with the Palestinians, which she said should be the government's top priority.
She said she doesn't want Kadima to be used as "a fig leaf" for a right-wing-dominated coalition that only endorsed a two-state plan under heavy pressure from the U.S.
Late last month, Netanyahu met with Livni to invite her to join the government. But Livni and others called the gesture insincere, saying it was intended to weaken the government's only real competition.
Asked what she would do differently as prime minister, Livni said she would pick up peace negotiations from the point of late 2008, when she led the government team under Olmert. At the time, Olmert reportedly offered a land swap that would allow Israel to keep some of its major West Bank settlements in return for Israeli land in the south. Talks broke down without a resolution.
Many in Kadima blame Livni for the fact that she's not sitting in the prime minister's seat. After winning 28 parliamentary seats in the February 2009 election, Livni failed to weave a coalition that would provide her with the 61 seats needed to form a majority. It was the second time she lost the chance to lead the country by failing to forge a coalition, a vital political skill in Israel, where parties proliferate.