By Alastair Macdonald and Adam Entous, Reuters
JERUSALEM — Tzipi Livni was narrowly elected leader of Israel’s ruling party and vowed on Thursday to start work immediately on forming a new coalition that will let her succeed the scandal-hit Ehud Olmert as prime minister.
After a tense night of counting following exit polls that showed the foreign minister cruising to a big win, the final margin over Shaul Mofaz, a former general who is now transport minister, was just one percentage point — or a mere 431 votes.
The final result was a huge relief to Livni, a 50-year-old commercial lawyer and one-time Mossad intelligence agent, who had confidently declared victory many hours earlier to her supporters within the centrist Kadima party.
She still faces a bumpy path to becoming prime minister — a role only once before held by a woman, when the redoubtable Golda Meir led Israel in the violent years of the early 1970s.
Olmert, who could be indicted for corruption, plans to resign in the coming days but stay on as caretaker until Livni can form her own government — a process that may take weeks.
Party spokesman Shmuel Dahan put the final result at 43.1 percent for Livni to 42.0 percent for Mofaz — a huge swing from the 10- to 12-point margins shown in exit polls after just over half the party’s 74,000 members had cast ballots during the day.
“The national mission … is to create stability quickly,” Livni told reporters outside her Tel Aviv home at dawn after an anxious night of waiting for the count. “On the level of government in Israel, we have to deal with difficult threats.”
She made no direct mention of the peace negotiations she has been heading with the Palestinians for the past year. Chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurie welcomed the choice of Livni, saying he believed she would “pursue peace moves with us”.
Allies said Livni was likely to pursue similar approaches to the Palestinians as under the Olmert government, though indirect talks with Syria may slow as Livni, who has been less involved in that process, waits for a new U.S. president in the new year.
She was scheduled on Thursday to meet Olmert and Ehud Barak, the defence minister whose Labour party is the second member of the outgoing coalition. Officials said this was intended to be a routine meeting of Cabinet members on security affairs.
Talks were also expected with Mofaz and the two other losing candidates in the Kadima race, Israeli media said.
Dubbed “Mrs. Clean” in the media, the often dour foreign minister is seen by some as the antithesis of Olmert, a glad-handing veteran politician who hit trouble when an American businessman testified to giving him envelopes stuffed with cash.
But the daughter of prominent Zionist guerrilla fighters of the 1940s will require combative spirit and political flair to live up to some supporters’ hopes she can be a new Golda Meir.
Columnists in major Israeli newspapers noted that only 20,000 Israelis, or 0.5 percent of the electorate, actually cast a allot to make Livni Kadima chairman, and said that cast doubt on her ability to claim a mandate for difficult decisions.
Mofaz’s campaign had threatened to appeal but aides to the Iranian-born former defence chief, who is popular among fellow Jews of Middle Eastern as opposed to European origin, told Israeli radio stations he had called Livni to congratulate her.