Tzipi Livni Israel, Tzipi Livni prime minister
Bernat Armangue/AP
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni

Livni Wins Primary, Has Chance to Become Israeli Prime Minister

September 18, 2008 05:41 PM
by Denis Cummings
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is in position to become prime minister after winning the Kadima Party election, but she faces a difficult task in forming a coalition government.

Livni Edges Mofaz in Primary

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni narrowly defeated former Minister of Defense Shaul Mofaz by 431 votes, a far slimmer margin than polls had predicted. The election, open to registered Kadima voters, had been called to choose a replacement for outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who faces corruption charges.

Livni is a political moderate who favors the creation of a Palestinian state and a withdrawal of Jewish settlers from much of the West Bank. She is nicknamed “Mrs. Clean” for her honesty and integrity—considered a welcome change from Olmert—though her critics say she lacks experience.

A day after winning the election, Livni began talks with leaders of other parties about forming a coalition government. Livni has 42 days to form a government and become Israel’s first female prime minister since Golda Meir retired in 1974. If she cannot form a government, the country will likely hold general elections in 2009, a year ahead of schedule.

“It may be that in order to maintain her clean image, it would be appropriate for Livni to go to elections in order to allow the entire public to elect its prime minister, thereby upgrading her legitimacy,” writes Sima Kadmon of Ynetnews. “Yet it would be difficult to blame her should she decide not to gamble on her primaries achievement and go to elections that may end badly for her.”

Livni faces opposition from right-wing Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who served as Prime Minister from 1996-99. Polls show that Netanyahu would be favored to win an election against Livni and Labor leader Ehud Barak.

If Livni is to form a government, she needs to maintain the four-party coalition with Labor, the Pensioners and Shas. The ultra-orthodox Shas present the biggest challenge for Livni and will likely decide whether a coalition is formed.

Shas opposes any division of Jerusalem and object to Livni’s peace talks with the Palestinians. Chairman Eli Yishai announced earlier in the week, “Shas will not join a government that does not declare that Jerusalem is not on the diplomatic agenda and is not to be included in negotiations.”

Despite that declaration, Shas may be willing to form a coalition if Livni agrees to increase funding to social programs for the poor. Yishai met with Livni Thursday and said the meeting was “good and friendly.”

Background: Ehud Olmert’s corruption charges

The election was held because Kadima needed a replacement for Prime Minister Olmert, who has been facing charges of bribery since May. Kadima’s largest coalition partner, the Labor Party, threatened to leave the coalition if Olmert was not replaced.

Olmert announced in June that he would not run in the Kadima election and agreed to resign following the election. He will officially resign Sunday, though he will remain interim prime minister until a new leader can be sworn in.

Key Player: Tzipi Livni

Livni’s parents served in the Zionist militant group Irgun, which carried out attacks against the British and helped lead to the creation of Israel in 1948. She served in the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad in the 1980s, fighting Arab terrorism from her base in Paris.

“Tzipi was not an office girl,” an unidentified acquaintance told The Times. “She was a clever woman with an IQ of 150. She blended in well in European capitals, working with male agents, most of them ex-commandos, taking out Arab terrorists.”

She entered politics in 1999, winning a seat in the Knesset as a member of the Likud. In keeping with her nationalist upbringing, she took a hard-line stance against Palestinians until 2001, when she changed her stance. “She had come to realise that the first two parts of that dream—a Jewish and democratic state—faced a mortal risk if Israel continued to rule over millions of people in the Palestinian territories,” writes the Guardian. “Two states, she had concluded, were a national imperative—not only for the Palestinians, but for Israel.”

In 2005, she followed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Olmert out of Likud and formed the Kadima Party. She was named Foreign Minister later that year, a position she has held ever since. After the Olmert scandal broke, Livni was immediately tabbed as his likely replacement.

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