TEL AVIV, September 18 – Tzipi Livni, the newly elected leader of Israel’s ruling Kadima party, faced the daunting task on Thursday of putting together a government to avert snap elections that could further slow the pace of Middle East peacemaking.
The 50-year-old foreign minister narrowly won a leadership vote to replace scandal-plagued Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is standing down to battle a number of corruption allegations.
Livni secured 43.1 percent of the vote against her main rival Transport Minister and former army chief Shaul Mofaz’s 42 percent, winning by just 431 votes, the central electoral commission said.
"I will start tomorrow to meet representatives of the other parties in the Knesset to a form a new coalition as quickly as possible in the face of the serious threats" the former Mossad spy said after her victory was confirmed.
Livni, who has been leading US-backed peace negotiations with the Palestinians, will have 42 days to form a government if she hopes to prevent an election that polls say would bring the right-wing Likud party to power.
"I will do my utmost not to disappoint you. I want to do what’s best for the country," she said.
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.
And the size of the task ahead was underscored when Eli Yishai, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which often plays the role of kingmaker, immediately laid down conditions for joining a Livni government.
He insisted there should be no negotiations on the future of Jerusalem and called for a big rise in family grants, something Livni has up to now rejected.
Olmert congratulated Livni and promised his "full cooperation" after exit polls showed her winning about 48 percent of the vote. Her lead diminished as the vote count continued into the night.
Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit and Public Security Minister Avi Dichter got 8.5 and 6 percent of the vote respectively.
The result confirms Livni’s meteoric rise to become 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.
The continuing political turbulence further dims chances of reaching a 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 the vote was an "internal Israeli affair" but that he hoped it would lead to 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 Kadima 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.
Livni will have to assemble a majority in the 120-member Knesset, or parliament, during which time Olmert 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, which was created by former prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2005 and is Israel’s youngest political party, said about 50 percent of its 74,000 members turned out to vote.