Israel's Tzipi Livni Has a Tough Climb to Become Prime Minister

Will "Mrs. Clean" make the unpleasant political deals or risk losing national elections?

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JERUSALEM—Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni begins her climb to the prime ministership unexpectedly hobbled—and badly so.

Officially called on Monday to begin putting together a coalition government, Livni, a moderate with considerable gravitas and a reputation for integrity, is suddenly faced with two unattractive options: horse-trading her way to the leadership of a government over which she would have little leverage or trying her luck in national elections that she would enter as the decided underdog.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

A week ago, Livni, the internationally respected bright light of Israeli politics, was expected to win the Kadima (Forward) primary by a substantial margin, which would have given her political legitimacy to become the new premier after the legally besieged Ehud Olmert's resignation, which he handed in Sunday.

But Livni didn't live up to the pollsters' expectations. She defeated her main party rival, former Army chief and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, by all of 431 votes, just 1.1 percent of those cast. There was evidence of voter fraud, too, which didn't help Livni's "Mrs. Clean" image.

Then, to everyone's surprise, Mofaz made her victory even more hollow by announcing that he was taking a "timeout" from politics. His departure severely weakens Kadima's defense profile, its ethnic diversity (unlike Livni and most Kadima supporters, Mofaz is of Middle Eastern, not European, background), and its claim to authenticity.

Founded at the end of 2005 by then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as a personal vehicle for power, Kadima has since lost Sharon to a debilitating stroke as well as its No. 2, Shimon Peres, to the ceremonial state presidency. And now, another second banana, Mofaz, has also left. Livni was last seen trying to persuade Vice Premier Haim Ramon, one of Israel's shrewdest politicians, not to follow Mofaz into retirement.

So, ironically, the real winner of the Kadima primary was Likud Party Chairman Binyamin Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing opposition and a former prime minister.

Until now, polls have shown him to be slightly more popular than Livni. A convincing win for her in the Kadima primary was expected to close that gap, but the close, ragged outcome puts the wind at Netanyahu's back. He's been calling for new elections for two years and now says that joining a Livni government would be like "joining Lehman Brothers."

Under the deeply unpopular, closely watched Olmert, the coalition government stayed afloat because most of its constituent parties were likewise so unpopular that they feared facing the electorate. That fear may be enough to get them to sign on with Livni.

Yet on the other hand, elections by law must be held no later than November 2010, and with Livni's troubles pointing to government instability, it's looking likely that elections will be held sooner than that; thus, her potential coalition partners may decide they have little to lose by going to the voters now.

Or, with little to lose, they may jack up their political demands to the point that Livni, who promised "a different kind of politics" in the primary, decides to call elections rather than give up her reformer's image, the key to her electoral appeal. "I am not afraid of elections," she reportedly told Kadima's Knesset faction.

From today, she has 42 days to form a government by winning the support of a majority of the Knesset, which would move her into the prime minister's office. If she were to fail to get that support and Netanyahu were then to pass on the chance to form a government with himself as premier, elections would be held 90 days after that point—and even then, the winner would have to cobble together a government to become prime minister.

Until Livni, Netanyahu, or some future candidate can line up a Knesset majority, Olmert remains Israel's lame-duck leader. This could all be finished in a week, or it could go on as late as next spring. In Israeli politics, nothing is ever simple.