Image: Tzipi Livni
Jonathan Nackstrand  /  AFP - Getty Images
Tzipi Livni, Israeli foreign minister, greets supporters outside the voting station in Tel Aviv during the Kadima elections Wednesday.
updated 9/17/2008 5:36:00 PM ET 2008-09-17T21:36:00

Tzipi Livni, Israel's foreign minister, won a clear victory in the ruling party's primary election Wednesday, TV exit polls showed, placing her in a good position to become Israel's first female leader in 34 years and sending a clear message that peace talks with the Palestinians will proceed.

Cheers and applause broke out at election-night headquarters in Tel Aviv when Israel's three TV networks announced their exit polls giving Livni between 47 percent and 49 percent, compared to 37 percent for her closest rival, former defense minister and military chief Shaul Mofaz. Livni supporters hugged each other and wiped away tears of joy.

Livni needed 40 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff next week.

"It's the beginning of a new period in Israeli politics, with much more responsibility," said Livni supporter Moshe Conforti as he celebrated at election headquarters.

A victory by Mofaz would have raised serious questions about Israel's involvement in peace talks with both the Palestinians and Syria. His approach is seen as far less conciliatory than Livni's. Had he won the primary, the Iranian-born politician could have become Israel's first prime minister of Middle Eastern, or Sephardic, descent.

Two other candidates, Cabinet minister Meir Sheetrit and Avi Dichter, a former director of the Shin Bet security service, lagged far behind in the polls.

Hobbled by corruption probe
If official results bear out the exit polling, as is likely, the 50-year-old Livni will replace Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as head of the Kadima Party. Olmert, the target of a career-ending corruption probe, had promised to step down as soon as a new Kadima leader was chosen.

Livni was expected to address party activists Thursday, after the vote counting was completed. Late Wednesday she thanked her supporters in a phone call to her headquarters.

"You fought like lions...you did an amazing thing, and I just want to do all the things you fought for," she said. "I know you did it as friends, but like me you did it because you want this to be a better place."

Livni will have 42 days to form a new ruling coalition. If she succeeds, she will become Israel's first female prime minister since Golda Meir. If she fails, the country will then head to elections in early 2009, a year and a half ahead of schedule. Olmert will remain as a caretaker leader until a new coalition is approved by the parliament.

Peace talks at stake
Nationally, polls show Livni roughly tied with Benjamin Netanyahu of the hardline Likud Party. A new nationwide vote would likely turn into a referendum on the current effort to forge a historic peace deal with the Palestinians.

"I am really happy that Livni won because she is committed to the peace process," said dovish Israeli lawmaker Yossi Beilin. "I think the right thing for her to do now is to form a coalition that wants to promote peace rather than a broad government with the right."

Israel's foreign minister since 2006, Livni is currently her country's lead negotiator in the peace talks. She is a rare female power figure in a nation dominated by macho military men and a religious establishment with strict views on the role of women. A former lawyer and one-time agent in the Mossad spy agency, Livni favors diplomacy over confrontation, even though she said last week that she has "no problem pulling the trigger when necessary."

Casting her vote in Tel Aviv, the usually reserved Livni bubbled with enthusiasm. She said she was pleased with the turnout at her polling station and urged people to vote.

"You can determine today what the character of Kadima will be," said Livni. "You can determine today if you really have had enough of old-time politics. Come and vote, bring your children, and show them how you are changing the country."

Palestinian Information Minister Riad Malki was hopeful that peace talks could succeed under Israel's new leadership.

"We welcome the results of the election, and we are going to deal with any new prime minister in Israel," he told The Associated Press. "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."

Crowded polls
Israeli media reported that about 55 percent of the 74,000 party members cast their ballots, with a crush of voters at polling stations as the deadline approached.

Kadima extended voting hours by half an hour Wednesday night, to give people returning from work more time to cast their ballots at crowded polling stations. Analysts predicted a high turnout would favor Livni, who has a wide advantage in opinion polls but who was seen not to have rallied party activists as efficiently as Mofaz.

The primary is Kadima's first since the party was founded by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2005. Sharon suffered a debilitating stroke in early 2006, and Olmert subsequently led the party to victory in elections.

Sharon set up Kadima as a personal bastion after his hard-line colleagues in Likud blasted his unilateral pullout from the Gaza Strip in 2005. It was widely predicted that the party would disintegrate after his exit, but the moderate Livni's victory appeared to give it a chance of survival.

Olmert is under police investigation over his financial dealings. But he has been pursuing peace talks with the Palestinians and has pledged to continue as long as he is in office.

However, both he and his Palestinian counterparts now say they are unlikely to reach the U.S.-set target date of year's end for a final peace deal. Also, any agreement they might reach would not be implemented until Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas regains control of the Gaza Strip, overrun by Hamas militants in June 2007.

Israeli political science professor Gadi Wolfsfeld predicted Livni could use a peace deal to win a national election.

"If she comes to a tentative agreement with the Palestinians, why not run on that platform, which would be very good for her," he said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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