Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has won a Kadima party leadership vote, putting her on track to succeed scandal-plagued Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as head of the government.
Mr Olmert congratulated Ms Livni and promised his full cooperation after exit polls showed her winning about 48 per cent of the vote, well above the 40 she needed to avoid a run-off against Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz, who trailed by at least 10 points.
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Ms 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.
“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.
Mr Olmert called Ms 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 Ms Livni as the front-runner, followed by Mr Mofaz, a hawkish former army chief and defence minister, and two other ministers who trailed far behind.
The election, though decisive, looks unlikely to end the political turmoil brought on by graft accusations against Mr Olmert, as it remains uncertain whether Ms 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 Mr 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,” said MP Yitzhak Ben Yisrael.
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.
Return to stability
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 said.
Mr 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 Mr 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 Mr Ben Yisrael, one of Ms Livni's top electoral aides.
'No easy choice'
“After that she will invite all other parties to take part in a wall-to-wall coalition,” he said, suggesting Ms Livni would also reach out to her former party Likud.
Kadima said about 50 per cent 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 Mr 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.
Ms Livni, a former lawyer, advocates withdrawing from most of the occupied West Bank in order to reach a two-state solution with the Palestinians.