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Livni Wins Kadima Contest with Slim Margin of Victory

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With her victory in Wednesday’s Kadima Party primary by the slimmest of margins, Tzipi Livni’s next major task will be assembling a coalition government so she can become prime minister.

Then all she’ll have on her plate is figuring out how to arrest the threat to Israel from Iran, resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a historic peace deal, neutralize the threat on Israel’s northern border from Hezbollah and run the country.

If she ever gets to it.

The immediate challenge Livni faces is demonstrating — both to the Israeli people and to Kadima’s prospective coalition partners — that her 431-vote margin of victory in Wednesday’s primary is enough for her to assert her leadership and bring partners into a coalition government.

In the wee hours on Thursday morning, Judge Dan Arbel announced that Livni beat the runner-up in the race, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, by a mere 431 votes — 43.1 percent to Mofaz’s 42 percent, according to Israeli media reports.

Lawyers for Mofaz initially announced he might challenge the results, but Mofaz later called Livni to congratulate her on her victory and conceded defeat.

Early exit polling had given Livni a double-digit margin of victory, as reported initially by JTA. But as the votes were counted late into the night, Livni’s margin dwindled to about 1 percent. The two other contenders in the primary finished far behind, with Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit winning 8.5 percent of the vote and Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter garnering 6.5 percent.

In Wednesday’s vote at 114 polling stations throughout the country, less than 33,000 people, or about 54 percent of Kadima’s members, voted for party leader — a relatively low turnout by Israeli standards. Even so, Livni complained of “congestion” at polling stations and argued for an extension of voting time by an hour. In a compromise, Kadima decided to extend voting by 30 minutes.

Livni’s victory is historic in several respects. She won the first-ever primary held by Kadima, the three-year-old political party founded by Ariel Sharon. Her election also brings an end to the Olmert era, though Ehud Olmert will stay on as caretaker prime minister until a coalition is assembled.

And if she succeeds in putting together a coalition, Livni would become Israel’s second female prime minister, following Golda Meir.

Livni will have 42 days to form a government. If she fails, Israel will be headed for new general elections.

She has made it clear that she wants to base her new government on the existing coalition – Kadima, Labor, Shas and the Pensioners parties — with the possible addition of other parties like Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu on the right, Meretz from the left and the fervently Orthodox Torah Judaism Party.

Livni wants to limit the current transition period, which she sees as a potentially unhealthy period of a two-headed government.

Kadima leaders argue that there already is a functioning government and there is no reason it shouldn’t continue its work. They maintain that all the Labor Party asked Kadima to do was change its leader, and, now that Kadima has done that, continuing with the present coalition shouldn’t be a problem.

But Livni’s main coalition partners have no intention of giving her an easy ride. Labor argues that a prime minister effectively elected by only 17,000 or so Israelis has no legitimacy and that the Israeli people as a whole should be allowed to have their say in new elections.

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu agrees. Polls show Likud would win many more than its current share of 12 Knesset seats if new general elections were held, possibly even winning the plurality and catapulting Netanyahu back into the office of prime minister.

Shas is also threatening new elections unless Livni meets its demands for more generous child allowances and a pledge to keep Jerusalem off the negotiating agenda with the Palestinians.

If Livni fails to form a coalition, there could be an election as early as next spring. If she succeeds, she could govern for a year or two before going into a new election with the incumbency advantage.

During the campaign, Livni gave a slew of interviews in which she spelled out her priorities:

* Moving ahead on the Palestinian track: Over the past few months, she and the former Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, have been drafting a full-fledged Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Both sides say that although they have made progress, closing the wide gaps that still exist will take time.

Once Livni is installed as prime minister, one key issue will become more difficult to resolve: refugees. Livni has repeatedly said that she will not agree to any resettlement in Israel proper of Palestinian refugees, because allowing just one Palestinian refugee in would chip away at Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state.

Livni might ease conditions on the ground for Palestinians by dismantling illegal settler outposts in the West Bank, something that successive Israeli prime ministers have failed to do. She argues that any government she heads will assert the rule of law.

As for Gaza, Livni warns that she will consider a large-scale ground offensive if Hamas uses the current truce to smuggle in huge quantities of arms.

* Ascertaining the seriousness of the Syrian track: Ever since Israel and Syria started conducting new peace feelers under Turkish auspices in January 2007, Livni has not been in the loop. She has argued that by going public with the talks, Israel has given Syria a degree of international legitimacy without getting very much in return.

Livni will want to see for herself whether Syrian President Bashar Assad is ready for a peace with Israel that entails a significant downgrading of his relations with Iran.

* Dealing quietly with the Iranian nuclear threat: Livni says as far as Israel is concerned, “all options are on the table” and that to say any more would be irresponsible. But she has intimated in the past that Israel could live with a nuclear Iran by establishing a very clear deterrent balance.

* Introducing a new style of cleaner government: Livni, who won the leadership race at least partly because of her squeaky clean image, will want to signal early on that she intends to introduce a new style of governing. Livni will want to clean up party politics by breaking the power of the Kadima vote contractors, who drafted people en masse to vote for a particular candidate. One idea is to set a minimum membership period — perhaps 18 months — before party members get voting rights.

By electing Livni, Kadima voters seemed to be saying enough of the generals at the top, and enough of wheeler-dealer politics. Livni, dubbed Mrs. Clean, is seen as a straight-thinking, scandal-free civilian clearly out to promote Israel’s best interests.

She has a full agenda, a chance to change the tenor of Israel politics and to make historic moves vis-a-vis the Palestinians and Syria.

But first she will have to survive the clamor for a recount and put together a viable coalition.

(JTA managing editor Uriel Heilman contributed to this report.)

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