Livni poised to be next Israeli leader

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni headed toward victory early today in the Kadima Party's primary for its leadership post, an outcome that would put her in a good position to become Israel's first female leader in 34 years and send a message that peace talks with the Palestinians will proceed.

Television exit polls late Wednesday said Livni posted a clear victory in the day's election. But the actual partial vote count showed a tighter race.

Cheers and applause broke out at party headquarters when Israel's three networks announced their exit polls gave Livni between 47 percent and 49 percent, compared with 37 percent for her closest rival, former defense minister and military chief Shaul Mofaz.

But with about 80 percent of the votes tallied early today, Livni had 45 percent to 41 percent for Mofaz, party officials told Israel Radio.

Livni, who needed 40 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff next week, was expected to address activists today after counting was completed.

If official results bear out the exit polls, as is likely, the 50-year-old Livni will replace Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as head of Kadima. Olmert, the target of a career-ending corruption probe, promised to step down as soon as a new Kadima leader was chosen.

Livni will have 42 days to form a new ruling coalition. If she succeeds, she will become Israel's first female prime minister since Golda Meir. If she fails, the country will hold elections in early 2009.

Nationally, polls show Livni roughly tied with Benjamin Netanyahu of the hard-line Likud Party. A new nationwide vote would likely turn into a referendum on the current effort to forge a historic peace deal with the Palestinians.

“I am really happy that Livni won because she is committed to the peace process,” said dovish Israeli lawmaker Yossi Beilin. “I think the right thing for her to do now is to form a coalition that wants to promote peace rather than a broad government with the right.”

Foreign minister since 2006, Livni is Israel's lead negotiator in the peace talks and is a rare female power figure in a nation dominated by macho military men and a religious establishment with strict views on the role of women.

A former lawyer, army captain and one-time agent in the Mossad spy agency, Livni favors diplomacy over confrontation, even though she said last week that she has “no problem pulling the trigger when necessary.”