Tzipi Livni (photo, from economist.com), Israel’s foreign ministry, has won the election to replace Ehud Olmert, the current prime minister, as the leader of the ruling Kadima party.
Early on Thursday, Ms Livni said in a victory speech, that she would now begin efforts to form a coalition government, putting her on track for the premiership.
If she hopes to avert snap elections, which polls say would bring the right-wing Likud party to power, she has 42 days to form a new government.
The central electoral commission said that in Wednesday’s poll, Ms Livni won by 431 votes, with 43.1 per cent of the vote, against 42 per cent for Shaul Mofaz, the transport minister.
Two other candidates, Meir Sheetrit, interior minister, and Avi Dichter, internal security minister, lagged behind with 8.5 and six per cent of the vote.
About 50 per cent of its 74 000 members turned out to vote, said Kadima.
Outside her home, Ms Livni, 50, said : “Tomorrow, I will begin meeting with representatives of the factions in order to form quickly a coalition that can deal with all of these challenges that lie ahead”.
“On the level of government in Israel, we have to deal with difficult threats,” she said. “The national mission … is to create stability quickly.”
‘A wall-to-wall coalition’
Yitzhak Ben Yisrael, an MP and one of Livni’s senior electoral aides, told the AFP news agency that he believed that she should be able to form a new coalition.
“After that she will invite all other parties to take part in a wall-to-wall coalition”, said Ben Yisrael, suggesting Ms Livni would also reach out to her former party Likud.
In opinion polls, Kadima is trailing the Likud party of Benjamin Netanyahu, a former Israeli prime minister.
Until a new government is formed, Mr Olmert (photo) will continue as caretaker. On Wednesday he telephoned Ms Livni in order to congratulate her and offer his “full co-operation”, said his office.
Rejecting a legal adviser’s proposal that Mr Mofaz ask for a recount, Israeli media reported that he had also called his rival to congratulate her on her victory.
The election was called after Ehud Olmert announced his resignation, because of allegations that he accepted cash payments from an American businessman, and double-claimed expenses for trips, before he became prime minister.
Ms Livni has been leading US-backed negotiations with the Palestinians, and in order to reach a two-states solution with them, she advocates an Israeli withdrawal from most of the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem.
She recently told supporters :“I want to hold peace negotiations as long as the Palestinians want the same. But any agreement must provide security to Israel”.
Riad Malki, the Palestinian information minister, said that he welcomed the result of the election.
“We are going to deal with any new prime minister in Israel”, he told The Associated Press news agency.
“We hope this new prime minister will be ready to … reach a peace deal with the Palestinians that ends the occupation and allows the establishment of an independent Palestinian state living beside Israel.”
Yet, other Palestinians were more sceptical about whether Ms Livni would improve the situation for them.
Dr Mohammed Ishtayeh, director of the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction, told Al Jazeera that he believed that the Israeli foreign minister would simply continue Ehud Olmert’s policies.
“When it comes to the Palestinians … we will not really see a change in the substance, there might be some cosmetic changes here and there”, he said.
“But the problem is if she is not be able to form the coalition Israel will be going into early elections, then we will be living with Olmert for six months.”
But before Ms Livni would be able to form a new government, there are a lot of obstacles she has to overcome, said Al Jazeera’s David Chater, reporting from Jerusalem.
“Every party in the coalition is going to try and wring new concessions out of her”, he said.
The fate of a future coalition could depend on the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. But on Thursday, Eli Yishai, the head of the party, said that there should be no negotiations on the future of Jerusalem if his party were to be part of a Livni government.
He also demanded a big rise in family grants, something Livni has up to now rejected.
“The problem is not what is happening at Kadima, but what will happen in the next elections … we cannot predict how Netanyahu would behave if elected”, said Yehezkel Dror, a political analyst.
In February 2006 elections, just months after it was founded, Kadima made the strongest showing, but its rule has been undermined by corruption scandals and criticism of the government’s handling of Israel’s 34-day war in Lebanon in 2006.