Livni gathers MKs’ backing

By Simon Griver, August 15, 2008

With just over a month to go to the Kadima primaries, Israel's Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, has maintained the momentum of her leadership bid while facing an increasing challenge from a rival candidate, Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz.

Two leading Kadima figures - Interior Minister Ronnie Bar-On and MK Tzachi Hanegbi - have given their support to Ms Livni in recent days. The backing of Mr Hanegbi is especially significant because he has enormous influence among grassroots party activists. For his part, Livni's main rival Mr Mofaz was boosted by the news that Housing Minister Ze'ev Boim and MK Otniel Schneller, both on the hawkish side of the party, will support him.

Following Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's decision not to run in the party primaries due to graft investigations against him being carried out by Israel's police, surveys have consistently given Ms Livni a six- to eight-point per cent lead over Mr Mofaz among the Kadima activists eligible to vote on 17 September.

In a Channel 10 survey on Tuesday, she led Mofaz by 39 per cent to 33 per cent. Her popularity is even stronger among the public, where she has a 14 per cent point lead. However, opinion polls suggest that Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud would easily beat a Livni-led Kadima in Knesset elections, albeit by a smaller margin than a Kadima led by Mr Mofaz.

However, Ms Livni's chances of forming a coalition government after the primaries without going to elections were dealt a blow when former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, the leader of the main coalition partner Labour party, described her as "unfit to lead".

He said that Kadima's decisions had "brought upon Israel the repercussions of disengagement, the Second Lebanon War and a series of embarrassing scandals. I'm not convinced that the Foreign Minister has what it takes to provide answers on the really important security issues that a prime minister is responsible for."

Despite the fighting talk, cynics suggested that due to Mr Barak's and Labour's poor showing in opinion polls, he may yet agree to form a coalition with Ms Livni.

Moreover, dovish Kadima circles who support Ms Livni have suggested that Mr Barak would prefer to see the more right-wing Mr Mofaz prevail next month because Ms Livni would be likely to take centrist support away from Mr Barak in the next Knesset elections.

Three key Kadima strongmen - Minister of Immigrant Absorption Eli Aflalo, Minister for the Development of the Negev and Galilee Yaakov Edri and MK Shai Hermesh - will decide in the coming days who they support.

Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter and Interior Minister Meir Shitreet also intend running in the primaries. Launching his bid, Mr Dichter vowed to revive the vision of Kadima founder, former premier Ariel Sharon.

"Was it lost forever the day Sharon had his stroke?" he asked. "We have been left with a party of posters and no content."

However, neither he nor Mr Shitreet are expected to receive more than 10 per cent support.

However, their participation will likely mean that neither Mr Mofaz nor Ms Livni will pass the 50 per cent threshold on September 17, which will then result in a second-round face-off the following week.

Last updated: 3:09pm, August 14 2008