With the Kadima leadership primary just days away, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni looks like a sure winner.
The latest opinion poll shows her 20 percentage points ahead of her closest rival in the contest that could produce Israel’s next prime minister.
The Sept. 17 Kadima Party vote comes after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced he would resign following a string of corruption scandals. Assuming the primary winner can put together a coalition government, she — or he — will automatically assume the premiership.
Livni’s closest competition, according to the polls, is Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, with the two other candidates, Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter and Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit, stuck in the single digits.
For Mofaz to have even an outside chance at winning the primary, the pollsters would have to be significantly off.
That is not beyond the bounds of possibility.
In the run-up to the 2005 Labor leadership primary, polls showed Shimon Peres beating his main rival, Amir Peretz, by 20 points. But Peretz pulled off a major upset, edging out his octogenarian rival by 2 percent. What pollsters hadn’t considered was Peretz’s brilliant election-day machine for getting supporters to the polls.
Mofaz, a former IDF chief of staff who has a strong body of activist Kadima supporters, will be hoping for something similar.
Kadima’s party leader is to be elected by the party’s membership – about 72,000 people.
Recruitment of new members with full voting rights was allowed until registration closed on July 31.
That opened up a recruitment race among the candidates, with each trying to bring in as many potential supporters as possible. That, in turn, spawned a system of so-called mega-recruiters and vote contractors: people with grassroots connections and influence who undertook wholesale recruitment for the various candidates, promising to deliver blocs of support.
Support for Mofaz is high among these party strongmen as well as with party mayors, who could influence voters.
But it doesn’t look like enough to turn the tide.
The key factor in the Kadima primary – the party’s first since its founding by Ariel Sharon as a centrist alternative to Likud — has been the widespread perception that Livni is the only candidate capable of winning a national election for Kadima.
The latest poll, conducted by the respected Dialog organization, shows Livni winning with 40 percent of the Kadima vote, followed by Mofaz with 20 percent, Dichter with 6 percent and Sheetrit with 5 percent; 28 percent are undecided.
If no candidate wins at least 40 percent in the Sept. 17 vote, there will be a runoff between the top two a week later. In such a scenario with Mofaz and Livni the winners, the poll shows Livni defeating Mofaz by 51 percent to 31 percent.
The first task for the Kadima victor will be to try to form a governing coalition.
Success will depend first and foremost on whether he or she can count on all 29 Kadima Knesset votes. If Mofaz wins, Livni has made it plain that she might well leave Kadima and form a breakaway faction; he might do the same if she wins.
On the assumption that she wins and Kadima does not split, Livni has been receiving two contradictory sets of advice.
Some of her confidants are urging her to do all she can to form a government and then run in new elections in a year or two from the position of prime minister. They argue that if Livni establishes herself as a bona fide national leader, she will have a much better chance of winning.
Others say that instead of trying to form a government, Livni should exploit her current wave of popularity and go for immediate general elections.
The Labor Party, which is currently down in the polls, also faces an acute dilemma:
If Livni wins, should Labor join the coalition and try to rebuild its electoral strength from inside the government, or clip Livni’s wings by bolting the coalition and thereby preventing her having enough seats to form a government?
If Labor goes in with Livni, it will help boost her standing as prime minister; if it stays out, it risks early elections in which polls show Labor would take an unprecedented beating.
The new political situation in Israel highlights the Labor-Kadima paradox. On the one hand, the two parties share a similar centrist ideology and are natural allies against the Israeli right. On the other hand, precisely because they are ideologically close, they must fight for the same political space.
Likud, which still leads in most polls, will want to press for early elections before Livni gains stature as a recognized national leader.
There is talk of a possible Labor-Likud coalition without Kadima, leaving Livni to wither in the opposition.
But, as appealing as this may appear at first glance to Labor’s Ehud Barak and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, it is highly unlikely. Netanyahu would not want to help Barak, who is currently trailing in the polls, by crowning him prime minister. And the Labor left would not countenance a coalition with Likud and the far right at the expense of a would-be peacemaking partnership with Kadima.
The key to whether Livni is able to form a coalition could lie with the fervently Orthodox Sephardic Shas Party.
Shas will make heavy demands — for example, restoration of hefty allowances for families with many children. Livni so far has not made any promises to Shas or anyone else. That has been one of the reasons for her popularity.
How she deals with the pressures of coalition-building could be a first real test of her leadership potential.
As for the outgoing Olmert, even though he will formally resign after the Kadima primaries next week, he will stay on as acting prime minister until a new government is formed.
Even the threat of a potential indictment against the prime minister – Israeli police this week recommended to Israel’s attorney general, Menachem Mazuz, that Olmert be indicted on two corruption-related charges – is not expected to change the political picture. If Mazuz ultimately decides to indict Olmert, he is unlikely to do so imminently.
Once the Kadima primary is over, the new Kadima leader will have six weeks to form a government.
If she or he succeeds, the winner could choose to govern or use the majority to call for early general elections. If she or he fails, President Shimon Peres could give another Knesset member a chance to form a government or call early elections if there is no likely candidate.
One way or another, the scandal-ridden Olmert era is fast coming to a close.