Livni tipped to claim comfortable win at polls

Foreign minister considered clear favourite to win Kadima party leadership race as confusion clouds when PM Olmert will step aside.

Supporters of Tzipi Livni prepare for today's Kadimi party vote. Opinion polls suggest the foreign minister will win the leadership ballot.
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JERUSALEM // The 74,000 members of Kadima, Israel's ruling party, go to the polls today to vote for a new leader, likely also to be Israel's next prime minister. Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister, continues to ride high in the polls and is the out-and-out favourite to win the contest. Her nearest competitor, Shaul Mofaz, the minister of transport, runs a distant second, but could still force a second vote if he prevents Ms Livni from securing more than 40 per cent of votes. In the latest poll, published Monday, Ms Livni looked set to garner 47 per cent of the vote to Mr Mofaz's 28 per cent, with two other contenders, Meir Shetrit, the interior minister, and Avi Dichter, the public security minister, lagging far behind at six per cent each. However, because the voting pool is relatively small, analysts caution against reading too much into opinion polling. Ehud Olmert, the prime minister, has said he will step down once his party has elected a successor. But it is not clear whether he will remain as caretaker prime minister until his successor can form a new coalition or if he will step aside immediately. In the first case, Mr Olmert could theoretically remain in office until the end of the year depending on how long it will take a successor to form a new coalition and whether new general elections are called. In what time he has left, Mr Olmert has vowed to press on with negotiations with the Palestinians. Last night he was scheduled to meet Mahmoud Abbas in what aides said would be a "last-ditch effort" to reach a deal. Although a few details have been made public as to the specifics of the negotiations, it seems unlikely that they are so advanced that agreement can be reached in one meeting. Nevertheless, there are suggestions that negotiations are more advanced than is generally thought, and both the Palestinian and Israeli sides seem eager to have something on paper, whether a declaration of principles, a shelf agreement or simply a status report, before the end of the year and the end of George W Bush's term as the US President. Ms Livni, who has led the Israeli negotiating team, will offer the greatest continuity vis-à-vis the Palestinians and should she win it will cause the least disruption to those talks. Mr Mofaz, who as chief of staff oversaw some of the more aggressive Israeli army operations in the Gaza Strip and West Bank during the second intifada and has sounded belligerent on Iran, is seen as more hardline. Still, analysts say, he is unlikely to rock the boat. "I think it will mostly be a difference in style," said Aluf Benn, a veteran Israeli journalist and the diplomatic editor of the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz. "Let's look at the reality. If Mofaz wins the elections and goes to Washington, can you imagine him telling the US president the Annapolis process is dead?" That there may only be a difference in style between the leading contenders is borne out by the lukewarm public interest in the Kadima campaign. Nevertheless, Ms Livni in particular has caught the public's imagination. She has consistently polled as Israel's most popular politician, outscoring the leader of the right-wing opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister, and in the process neatly divided opinions. In yesterday's Israeli press, Haaretz, a liberal paper, ran a column describing her as the "woman of the hour", "straight as an arrow" and as possessing "great courage". A columnist in the right-of-centre Jerusalem Post, however, decried her as "a fraud", "deceitful" and a far-left radical that "lies to the public". What all sides seem to agree on is that Ms Livni is untainted by the corruption allegations that have dogged Mr Olmert's time in charge. "The situation in Israel with regards to corruption is a dire one," said Daniel Kayross of the Movement for Quality Government, an independent corruption watchdog that years ago awarded Ms Livni its Knight of Quality Government award. "Olmert is a product of a much wider problem of governance in Israel ? Luckily, [having clean hands] does now seem to be something that is on the agenda." Corruption was always an issue in Israel, sometimes accepted as part of the rough-and-tumble of Israeli political life where many politicians came from the army and a macho atmosphere prevailed. But the sordidness of some of the recent scandals - that, in addition to Mr Olmert's, included Moshe Katsav, the former president, resigning in the face of a possible indictment on four counts of rape and another Kadima minister, Haim Ramon, resigning for "inappropriate sexual conduct" as well as numerous little and large financial irregularities - should ensure that corruption will remain an issue when Israelis next go to vote. "Livni has a clean image, she has a golden opportunity," Benn said. Indeed, Mr Olmert, by resigning under a cloud of corruption allegations, has bucked a trend going back two decades in which Israeli governments collapse because of the Palestinian issue. That issue, however, is likely to re-emerge as the main challenge once a successor to Mr Olmert is found. "Both [Ms Livni and Mr Mofaz] have good prospects to stay as prime minister for a few years," Benn said. "The problem is, it's a very difficult situation at the moment in the sense that there is a very little a prime minister can do. "The situation is paralysed because of the US elections, the economic downturn and the Palestinian issue. There are many unknowns."