Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni secured a narrow victory in a party leadership contest that sets her on course to succeed the scandal-crippled Ehud Olmert as prime minister in the coming weeks.
Also read: Ruling Kadima Party votes to replace Olmert
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni narrowly won a Kadima party leadership vote, putting her on track to succeed scandal-plagued Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as head of the government, it was announced Thursday.
After a race that became ever tighter as the count continued, Livni finally got 43.1 percent of the vote against Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz's 42 percent, winning by just 431 votes, the central electoral commission said.
Olmert had congratulated Livni and promised his full cooperation after exit polls showed her winning about 48 percent of the vote, well above the 40 she needed to avoid a run-off against Mofaz who then trailed by at least 10 points.
Livni's lead diminished as the vote count continued into the night, and members of Mofaz's campaign said he would call for a re-count of the votes, should the gap turn out to be really small.
Livni, who has been leading US-backed negotiations with the Palestinians, would have 42 days to form a government if she hopes to avert snap elections that opinion polls say would bring the right-wing Likud party to power.
"You have fought like lions. The best have won," the former Mossad spy told jubilant suppporters in Tel Aviv after the exit polls were released.
"I will do my utmost not to disappoint you. I want to do what's best for the country," added the 50-year-old Livni.
The vote has cemented her position as the most powerful woman in Israel and could now see her follow in the footsteps of Golda Meir, the country's first woman prime minister.
Olmert called Livni "and congratulated her on her victory in the primary elections," his office said in a statement. "The prime minister said that Livni will enjoy his full cooperation."
Polls ahead of the election had shown Livni as the front-runner, followed by Mofaz, a hawkish former army chief and defence minister, and two other ministers who trailed far behind.
The election looks unlikely to end the political turmoil brought on by graft accusations against Olmert, as it remains uncertain whether Livni will be able to form a government and take over the premiership.
The political turbulence further dims chances of reaching a Middle East peace deal by the end of the year, a goal Olmert and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas had set at a US conference that relaunched talks last November.
"Livni will continue with the peace process. The peace process is part of Livni's platform and is one of the main reasons she was elected," MP Yitzhak Ben Yisrael told AFP.
But opinion polls say Likud leader and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a reputed hardliner on the peace process, is likely to become premier if the country goes to the polls.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said Wednesday's vote was an "internal Israeli affair" but that he hoped it would lead to a return of stability.
"We hope there will be comprehensive and serious negotiations and that the Israeli voter will choose the removal of the settlements and the wall and strong cooperation with a Palestinian partner," he told AFP.
Olmert, who announced on July 30 that he would step down once his Kadima party has picked a new leader, has faced public uproar over a string of corruption investigations that could lead to criminal charges against him.
But he is likely to wait until after the Jewish New Year celebrations and formally resign early next month, according to Israeli media.
The next Kadima leader will have to assemble a majority in the 120-member Knesset, or parliament, during which time Olmert -- who first took office in January 2006 -- may head an interim government.
"The next step will be to form a coalition government similar to the current coalition. I believe she will be able to form one," said Ben Yisrael, one of Livni's top electoral aides.
"After that she will invite all other parties to take part in a wall-to-wall coalition," he said, suggesting Livni would also reach out to her former party Likud.
Kadima said about 50 percent of its 74,000 members turned out to vote. But the election drew little excitement among Israelis, with editorialists generally unenthusiastic about the candidates.
"It is not an easy choice. Choosing between Tzipi Livni and Shaul Mofaz is like choosing between two shades of grey," the top-selling Yediot Aharonot said ahead of the vote.
Like Olmert, both candidates had left Likud to join Kadima under the leadership of the party's founder Ariel Sharon in late 2005, but they ran on sharply contrasting platforms.
Livni, a former lawyer, advocates withdrawing from most of the occupied West Bank in order to reach a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
Date created : 2008-09-18