Livni said to become Israel's second female leader

Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister, is looking increasingly likely to succeed Ehud Olmert, the prime minister.

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JERUSALEM // Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister, is looking increasingly likely to succeed Ehud Olmert, the prime minister, as head of Kadima and eventually prime minister. Kadima party members vote on Wednesday to choose Mr Olmert's successor, and a poll released on Friday shows Ms Livni holding a commanding 15-percentage-point lead over her closest rival, Shaul Mofaz, minister of transport and a former chief of army staff. Two other contenders trail far behind.

According to the poll, Ms Livni would garner 47 per cent of the vote, enough to guarantee her an outright victory and avoid a second round. Kadima bylaws state that a candidate needs more than 40 per cent of the vote to secure nomination. Mr Mofaz trails at 32 per cent, while Meir Shetrit, the interior minister, and Avi Dichter, the public security minister, would seem out of contention at eight and six per cent, respectively.

Some caution is called for in interpreting the survey, however. Kadima is still a new party and party members, most hailing from the right-wing Likud Party, are generally seen as closer to Mr Mofaz's more hardline positions on a number of issues. The vote for Ms Livni would appear primarily a tactical one, with the foreign minister widely perceived as both more likely to be able to form a coalition government in the present parliament and more capable of competing should early general elections be called.

"I think Kadima members feel greater empathy with someone like Mofaz than Livni," said Yossi Alpher, an Israeli analyst. "This is partly because he has been better at working the party's membership base. Livni, however, is a much more popular politician among Israelis generally, and this could well be the deciding factor." Indeed, a separate poll on Thursday found the competition between the two front-runners much closer, with Ms Livni leading by only 4.3 percentage points and, at 39.6 per cent of the vote, in need of a second ballot against Mr Mofaz. The same poll found, however, that Kadima with Mr Mofaz at the helm would garner only 17 seats in general elections, while under Ms Livni the party would take 25 seats.

Ms Livni, for all the apparent rivalry between her and Mr Olmert, is seen as closer to current government policy, especially regarding the Palestinians, and negotiations are likely to continue uninterrupted under her. Mr Mofaz has sounded much more belligerent, especially on Iran, though he, too, is likely to continue negotiations with Palestinians, at least in the near future. Mr Mofaz is also more likely to cave into right-wing pressure to keep certain issues away from negotiations, thus inevitably hastening their demise.

Mr Olmert, for his part, has vowed to step down as soon as a successor is elected, ending speculation that he would seek to hang on to his post as long as possible. Whoever takes over Kadima will, therefore, have 42 days to form a new coalition government. Should he or she fail to do so, general elections would have to be held within three months. In theory, then, Israel should have a new prime minister by early November, who will most likely be the country's second-ever female leader. Possibly, however, Israelis will vote in early general elections in January or February of 2009, at around about the same time Palestinians are due to vote in their presidential elections.