‘New Golda Meir’ Tzipi Livni to be new Israeli PM

10:28, 18 September 2008
World
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Ms Livni had run a successful...

Touted as the new Golda Meir, former Mossad agent-turned-politician Tzipi Livni emerged last night as the new head of Israel’s ruling party and was set to become the Jewish state’s second woman Prime Minister, less than a decade after she first entered parliament, according to Times Online

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The 50-year-old won a narrow victory in Kadima party elections to choose a successor to Ehud Olmert, the scandal-hit outgoing premier. Early exit polls predicted she would win by a large margin over her main rival, Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz, but after a tense night of vote counting Ms Livni, who favours a quick peace deal with the Palestinians won by just one percentage point.

"The good guys won," Ms Livni told her supporters.

Shmuel Dahan, the party spokesman, said: "Kadima today has a new chairman. The chairman is Tzipi Livni." He put the result at 43.1 percent for Ms Livni to 42.0 percent for Mr Mofaz - a huge swing from the 10- to 12-point margins shown in exit polls.

Earlier, Ms Livni had declared victory when, to cheers and applause from supporters in her campaign nerve centre, exit polls appeared to show that she would easily cruise to victory over Mr Mofaz, a more conservative and hawkish former general, garnering only about 37 percent.

Mr Olmert phoned his successor to congratulate her and Ms Livni told the party faithful: “You have fought like lions. The best have won. I will do my utmost not to disappoint you. I want to do what’s best for the country.”

However as the night wore on the gap closed significantly. At one point, as the margin closed to 46 percent to Ms Livni and 41 percent to Mr Mofaz, the former general`s supporters suggested they would demand a recount.

Ms Livni had run a successful Barack Obama-style campaign as the candidate for change, while Mr Mofaz was seen as less likely to commit to any of the compromises that backers of a swift peace accord deem necessary to end decades of conflict.

“You can determine today if you really have had enough of old-time politics. Come and vote, bring your children, and show them how you are changing the country,” Ms Livni said as she cast her own ballot.

Her meteoric rise has led Ms Livni across the political spectrum, from her pedigree as daughter of nationalist militants in the anti-British Irgun underground movement to the hard-right politics of the Likud Party, and now to the point where she could potentially find herself the leader who seals a peace deal with the Palestinians.

She will face tough challenges in the coming months, inheriting a fractious coalition from Mr Olmert, who may face jail for corruption. The current government lineup could crumble as ultra-Orthodox partners bolt the stable to try to block Ms Livni from dividing Jerusalem with the Palestinians.

That could clear the way for elections, something which the tough-talking Foreign Minister says she is able to win, despite polls leaning toward her hard-right rival, Binyamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud party.

Born in Tel Aviv in July 1958, Ms Livni gained the rank of lieutenant in the Israel army before joining the spy service Mossad, where she was based in Paris. Although some reports have pegged her as a frontline hunter of Arab terrorists operating across Europe, one Israeli television station recently asserted she had held a far less glamorous role in the world of espionage: simply occupying a safe-house in the French capital to give it the semblance of a normal apartment.

Ms Livni’s later political career has far outstripped that of her daring father. Having quit Mossad to marry and start a family, she became a commercial lawyer before entering the Knesset, or Israeli parliament, in 1999 on a Likud ticket. In 2001 she held her first minor ministerial post in the government of Ariel Sharon, who went on to found Kadima after falling out with the inflexible stance of Likud.

Ms Livni followed Mr Sharon when the former general broke with the right-wing orthodoxy he had done so much over the years to promote and ordered the army to evacuate thousands of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip three years ago.

Mr Sharon suffered a stroke in early 2006, but Ms Livni followed his path from the right towards the centre of the political field. Under Mr Olmert’s scandal-plagued leadership she became the head of the Israeli team negotiating in secret over an agreement setting out the principles under which a future Palestinian state could be established.

But the difficulties ahead are many: although she is popular among the electorate, she is seen by many politicians as inexperienced in dealing with Israel’s many strategic threats, including the future risk of a nuclear-armed Iran that is trying to assert its presence not only in the Gaza Strip, controlled by its local Islamist allies Hamas, but also in the West Bank, where Israel’s secular negotiating partners Fatah are still clinging to power.

If she wins the leadership contest Shas, the ultra-Orthodox party that has propped up Mr Olmert’s coalition, could well walk out in protest at reports that she is negotiating with Palestinians about ceding East Jerusalem.

Ms Livni is the first woman Prime Minister of Israel since Golda Meir, who held the office from 1969-74.

By James Hider, Times Online

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