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Israelis vote on new leader, Olmert hangs on


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By Alastair Macdonald


JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Members of Israel's ruling party voted on Wednesday for a new leader to replace Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has promised to resign following a corruption investigation in which he faces indictment.


But whether Tzipi Livni or fellow cabinet minister Shaul Mofaz secures the support of a majority of the 74,000 members of the centrist Kadima party, Olmert may stay on as caretaker premier for weeks or months -- and Israel's fractious coalition politics could yet mean an early parliamentary election.


Ballot boxes in dozens of party offices and other venues across the country opened at 10 a.m. (0700 GMT). In the first four hours, turnout was 13.3 percent, a party website showed.


After what many had thought might be his last such meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday, Olmert vowed to carry on with their peace negotiations -- a sign he aims to exercise his right to continue as prime minister while his successor as party leader tries to form a new government.


Polls show Foreign Minister Livni well ahead of Mofaz, the transport minister and a former general, in her bid to become Israel's first woman leader since Golda Meir in the 1970s.


But both camps remain cautious, citing the patchy record of surveys in such contests. A poll on Monday showed Livni with 47 percent to Mofaz's 28 percent, with the two other candidates trailing. But Mofaz has predicted he will win, and secure more than the 40 percent needed to avoid a runoff vote next week.


Whoever succeeds Olmert, many see a parliamentary election in months.


Kadima, founded in 2005 by Ariel Sharon, has just a quarter of the seats in the Knesset. Rivals, some within Olmert's coalition, are preparing for a national battle that polls show may favor Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud.


Livni, who is Israel's chief negotiator in the peace talks with the Palestinians launched by U.S. President George W. Bush 10 months ago, is widely seen as offering continuity in that process -- but few on either side see a major breakthrough for peace before Bush himself leaves office four months from now.


Mofaz, as army chief and then defence minister, garnered a reputation for tough tactics against a Palestinian uprising from 2000. He has also said an attack on his native Iran could become "inevitable" if it pursued a program to develop nuclear arms.


In twin campaign statements published in major newspapers, the two leading candidates set out their proposals.


Livni, whom supporters hail as a "Mrs. Clean" who would end the taint of scandal left by Olmert and others, said: "This is a second chance to shape Israel's image, to fix the damage and to place the good of the country and its people at the centre."


Mofaz, who stresses his greater experience in security affairs, said: "I intend to ... explore all practical possibilities for a path to peace. But I have no doubt that peace is achieved from a position of strength and deterrence."


On the economy, Mofaz was the only Kadima minister to vote against Olmert's tight 2009 budget and, with his ties to trade unions and appeal to poorer Israelis, he has stressed a desire to reduce economic inequalities while pursuing growth.


Livni, a career commercial lawyer whose husband is a prominent entrepreneur, is seen as offering continuity with the market-oriented economic policies of the outgoing government.


The Israeli public has found it hard to muster enthusiasm for the Kadima primary -- "Grey Day", ran a headline on the vote in Wednesday's mass-selling Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.


Mofaz, 59, who migrated from Tehran as a child in the 1950s, would be the first prime minister not of European origin.


Many of his fellow Sephardic Jews complain of feeling second-class citizens to Ashkenazis from Europe. Livni, a 50-year-old lawyer and former Mossad intelligence agent, is the daughter of a famed Polish-born guerrilla fighter of the 1940s.


(Additional reporting by Joseph Nasr and Allyn Fisher-Ilan in Jerusalem and Ari Rabinovitch in Tel Aviv; editing by Andrew Roche)

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Livni looks victorious in Israel's Kadima primary

Exit polls showed that Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni won with roughly 48 percent of the vote to take over the party led by Ehud Olmert.


By Ilene R. Prusher | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor from the September 18, 2008 edition


Jerusalem - Israel's popular foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, known for her steely reserve, won Wednesday's primary to head the leading Kadima Party, according to exit polls.


The victory puts her one step closer to becoming Israel's next prime minister and only the second female premier, preceded by Golda Meir, whose term ended nearly 35 years ago.


Ms. Livni won the Kadima primaries with roughly 48 percent of the vote, exit polls from three different television channels predicted after polling stations closed at 10:30 p.m. on Wednesday. She beat her strongest competitor, Shaul Mofaz, by a margin of about 10 percent.


Livni will replace Ehud Olmert, who promised that he would leave office the day after party primaries were held, following demands he resign due to his likely indictment on corruption charges.


"A lot is dependent on her," Knesset member Ofer Pines told Israel's Channel One as the results came in. "If she can bring in new hope to the party and to the country, that would be great. If not, it's a real missed opportunity."


Mr. Olmert has headed Kadima since January 2006 when he took over after the party's founder, Ariel Sharon, was incapacitated by a major stroke. Both Olmert and Livni were all originally members of the right-wing Likud Party, but followed Mr. Sharon when he left to form Kadima as a centrist party with "disengagement" – Israel's departure from the Gaza Strip and a few West Bank settlements in August 2005 – at the center of its unilateralist agenda.


Livni, who has led Israel's negotiations with the Palestinians since the peace process was revamped by the Bush administration in Annapolis, Md., last November, is seen as being far keener on making peace with Israel's neighbors. Although they are in the same party, Livni's outlook on international affairs is markedly different from that of Mr. Mofaz, a military hawk and former army chief of staff who has taken a much more aggressive line on Iran's nuclear program.


Livni's parents were members of the Irgun, one of the most hard-line Zionist militias at the time of Israel's founding. Trained as a lawyer, she served in the Mossad, Israel's spy agency, before being elected to the Knesset in 1999.

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