Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) – Israel soon may have a woman at the helm – its first female prime minister in 34 years.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni emerged the leader of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Kadima party in Wednesday’s election. But the road ahead will be tough, analysts say.
Exit polls on Wednesday evening showed that Livni had won a sweeping victory over closest contender, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, but when the votes were counted she had won by just 431 votes.
Following the exit poll results, Livni called her Tel Aviv headquarters and told the staff they had “fought like lions” against special interests groups. “The good guys won,” she exclaimed.
Livni -- whose nine-year rise through the political ranks has been described as “meteoric” -- is one step closer to becoming prime minister. But her ascension to the post is by no means assured.
Political expert Yehuda Ben-Meir from the Institute of National Security Studies in Tel Aviv said it would be “hard but not hopeless” for Livni to form a new government.
Livni’s narrow victory over Mofaz could result in competition within the party that could make it difficult for Kadima to function. It also gives her less credibility in negotiating with possible coalition partners, Ben-Meir said.
He told CNSNews.com he believes that Israel is headed for general elections “sooner rather than later.”
Commentators also were disturbed by the Livni’s narrow margin of victory. According to final results, Livni won the vote of 16,936 Kadima members – less than a quarter of a percent of the total population of Israel.
“Ninet Tayeb needed ten times that to win the ‘A Star is Born’ television talent show,” wrote Yossi Verter in the liberal Israeli daily Ha’aretz in reference to the Israeli version of American Idol.
“More people will arrive at the Yarkon Park [in Tel Aviv] to see Paul McCartney perform than the number of people who bothered to show up at polling stations in order to elect the person who may become Israel’s next prime minister,” wrote Sima Kadmon in the largest circulation daily Yediot Aharonot.
“A total of 0.5 percent of the public – this is the mandate received by a leader during one of the most fateful and complex periods in the State of Israel’s history,” Kadmon said.
The daily Yisrael Hayom said that Livni’s win would be seen as “a mix” between the “historic precedent” set by Israel’s first female Prime Minister Golda Meir, who served from 1969-1974, “and the current Sarah Palin effect.”
The editors wrote that while some might challenge Livni’s “moral right to establish an alternative government, it is impossible to deny her constitutional right to try.”
Known for her “clean” or corruption-free reputation, Livni has 42 days after the Olmert’s resignation to do the wheeling and dealing necessary to cobble together a coalition government.
The challenges facing her include the ultra-religious Shas party, which has played a pivotal role in the formation of past governments. Shas leader Eli Yishai said that among his party’s conditions for joining a government are an increase in government child allowances as well as no talks on the future of Jerusalem.
If coalition talks fail, the country will go to general elections, probably early next year. In that case, Livni would be competing against Likud party chairman and former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who might well win, according to opinion polls.
Ben-Meir said Livni’s election would not affect the Israeli-Palestinian peace process because Livni has been in charge of the U.S.-backed negotiations anyway.
Livni, a former agent with Israel’s Mossad, has been leading Israel’s team in the peace talks.
Palestinians welcomed Livni’s new leadership role, saying they hoped she would continue with the negotiations, which are aimed at ending the decades old Israeli-Palestinian conflict by establishing a Palestinian state. Palestinians want eastern Jerusalem as the capital of that state.
But columnist Amir Oren wrote in Ha’aretz that others in the region might be tempted to test Livni.
“If she were leading a rock group, we could call it ‘Tzipi and the Expectations.’ She is expected to form a nimble yet stable government, broad enough to avert early Knesset elections yet efficient enough to work and to make policy,” Oren said.
According to Oren, Livni’s “first priority” should be to eliminate Olmert’s influence on the Kadima party and purge corruption from the government. But she has little time to do it, he said.
“She may find herself leading a state at war, not in a year’s time, but in a month or even a week, because it is not only Israel that has the initiative. Its enemies – Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas – may be tempted to take advantage of her inexperience,” Oren said.
Plagued by a number of corruption investigations against him, Olmert was forced by his own party to call for new elections. He promised to resign the day after a new Kadima party leader was chosen but apparently will delay the move until the Jewish Rosh HaShanah holiday in two weeks.
In comments on Wednesday, Olmert said his decision to resign was “painful.” He said there were other things he could have done for the country. “Yet I have no bitterness, no anger or rage,” he said.