TEL AVIV // The Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni appealed to her party's restive parliamentary bloc for unity today after she narrowly won an internal ballot to replace the scandal-plagued prime minister Ehud Olmert. "We need to act quickly ... We don't have time to waste bickering over politics," she told fellow lawmakers at Kadima party headquarters in Tel Aviv, their first meeting since she beat former general Shaul Mofaz in the voting on Wednesday.
Speed was vital, she said, "because there are difficult challenges facing us as a nation and Kadima is the party running the country and will go on doing so for many years". Mr Mofaz, however, stayed away, after a sometimes bitter campaign that ended with him losing to Ms Livni by a mere 400-odd votes, or just one percentage point. During a tense and lengthy count, some of Mr Mofaz's aides complained of irregularities.
Ms Livni urged the party to pull together now: "Kadima needs to stay united and I'm sorry Shaul Mofaz has decided not to be with us here today." But her narrow victory has opened a rift within the three-year-old centrist party that could make it harder for her to cobble together a new coalition government and become prime minister once Mr Olmert fulfils his pledge to resign as premier following an investigation into alleged corruption.
Mr Mofaz shocked Israel's political establishment by announcing he was taking a "time out" from politics. The Kadima primary was seen by some as adding pressure along Israel's main ethnic fault line ? between the long-dominant Ashkenazi Jews of European origin, like Ms Livni, and Middle Eastern Sephardis. Mr Mofaz, who was born in Iran, had inspired hopes among fellow Sephardi Jews that he might become the first of their community ever to become prime minister of a country where many complain they have been treated as second-class citizens.
Ms Livni supporters played down Kadima's divisions, saying most of Mr Mofaz's camp took part in the meeting in a sign of unity. Ms Livni, a 50-year-old lawyer who once served in the Mossad intelligence agency, began meeting with coalition partners yesterday, hours after the vote. But insiders questioned her ability to quickly form a new government and become Israel's first female leader since Golda Meir in the 1970s.
Mr Olmert, who faces possible indictment, will notify the cabinet on Sunday of his resignation. Mr Olmert will then have to present his resignation to the president Shimon Peres after Mr Peres returns from abroad at the end of September. Until Ms Livni forms a government, Mr Olmert plans to stay on as caretaker prime minister and pursue US-sponsored peace talks with the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Today, Mr Abbas called to offer congratulations to Ms Livni, who has been Israel's chief peace negotiator, her office said. Few on either side see a major breakthrough in the process, despite pressure from George W Bush for them to conclude a deal on a Palestinian state before he leaves the White House in January. Kadima is the biggest party in parliament but only has 29 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, forcing it to rely on support from the left-wing Labour party of Ehud Barak and a variety of other groups, including right-wing religious Jews.
Right-wing opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday called for an immediate parliamentary election, not otherwise due until 2010. Polls show his Likud party would win. *Reuters