Tzipi Livni Wins Party Vote in Israel

By Samuel Sockol and Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 18, 2008

JERUSALEM, Sept. 18 -- Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Wednesday narrowly won the leadership of the main party in Israel's governing coalition, exit polls showed, giving her the chance to become Israel's first female prime minister in more than three decades.

Livni, who has served as Israel's chief negotiator during nearly a year of U.S.-backed talks with the Palestinians and who favors pressing forward with those discussions, defeated a more hawkish challenger, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz.

Livni won approximately 43.1 percent of the vote, compared with 42 percent for Mofaz, with other candidates picking up the remainder, according to final results from Wednesday's Kadima party primary.

"We have proven that there are different politics here," Livni said in her victory speech. "People have engulfed me in love and it doesn't matter if they are Kadima members or not. These are the people standing behind this decision." Mofaz congratulated Livni on the victory.

The victory gives Livni 42 days to put together a new governing coalition with the centrist Kadima party at its head. If she fails, Israel will hold general elections in early 2009. Currently, opposition leader and former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is favored to win such a vote.

The Kadima primary was spurred by the downfall of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, 62, who has been besieged this summer by multiple corruption investigations. The police have recommended that Olmert be formally indicted on bribery and other charges, and the attorney general is now weighing that decision.

Although Olmert remains in office, he has announced he will soon step down, ending his nearly three-year tenure.

Livni and Olmert share membership in Kadima, but Livni has been one of his staunchest critics -- casting herself as a reformer with little taste for backroom dealing.

Livni is relatively new to politics, having first joined the Knesset, or parliament, in 1999, after a successful career as a lawyer and several years as an agent in the Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence service.

Her family has long been in the public eye, however: Her parents were prominent members of the Irgun, the underground militia that carried out violent attacks against Arab and British institutions as part of an effort to create a Jewish state in what was then Palestine. Both her parents served jail time for their activities. Her father was later elected to Israel's parliament.

As a child, Livni had close contact with other luminaries of the Israeli right, including future prime minister Menachem Begin. Well into the 1990s, she continued to advocate hard-line views, including opposition to the Oslo peace accords that created a Palestinian authority in the occupied territories.

But when then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon abandoned the Likud party to form the centrist Kadima party three years ago, Livni went with him, supporting his decision to disengage from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005.

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