Israel's largest political party, Kadima, has a new leader today after party members voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to replace party chairwoman Tzipi Livni just three years after she led the young party to the largest number of seats in parliament.
More than 62 per cent, of the 39,000 party members who voted, cast ballots for Ms. Livni's long-time rival, Shaul Mofaz, a former military chief of staff and a defence minister under Ariel Sharon.
Garnering only 37 per cent of the vote, Ms. Livni, a former foreign minister who was recently named by Newsweek Magazine as one of the 150 "women who shake the world," seemed in a state of shock early this morning as the scale of defeat became clear. Her staff issued a statement and Ms. Livni declined to appear in public.
It is said she is now considering her future options, including resigning from public life altogether. Few believe she will be willing to continue in the party led by the man who worked tirelessly the past three years to unseat her, and who is viewed as being considerably more politically right wing.
While it had been believed as recently as this past weekend that a defeated Ms. Livni might opt to form a new political party, those dreams have been dashed by the scale of her defeat.
"One does not build an alternative with such a result," wrote political columnist Sima Kadmon this morning. "In fact, one cannot build anything with such numbers."
"This is not a defeat," Ms. Kadmon wrote in the popular daily, Yedioth Ahronoth. "It is a collapse. A downfall. A total disintegration."
Israeli analysts now believe that those who voted for Ms. Livni's politics – opposition to the growing power of the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox), women's rights and gay rights, and a strong commitment to a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – will likely abandon Kadima and support the Labour Party, now led by a female leader, Shelly Yachimovich, or to a new party being formed by popular broadcaster and journalist Yair Lapid.
For his part, Mr. Mofaz, whose victory is sweet vindication for a narrow loss to Ms. Livni three and half years ago, says he hasn't come this far to lose support now. With the help of the half of the party caucus that endorsed him, he intends to prove his electability.
Tarred during the campaign as someone who couldn't wait to jump into bed with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing coalition government, Mr. Mofaz insisted early today that he was interested only in defeating Mr. Netanyahu, not joining him.
Indeed, during the course of the campaign, the normally discreet former general twice called out the Prime Minister, accusing him of being "a liar."
And while Mr. Mofaz had only reluctantly left the right-of-centre Likud Party to join Mr. Sharon's Kadima Party seven years ago, a review of his positions on several key issues since then shows a more moderate politician than he is given credit for.
While he is not a civil liberties advocate in Ms. Livni's mold, and has worked hard to win support in the Haredi community, he has advocated a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict. He went so far a year ago to advocate an immediate recognition of a Palestinian state within temporary borders (amounting to about 60 per cent of the West Bank) and then negotiations with the Palestinian government to work out the details of the remaining 40 per cent.
As he is best known in Israel for being military chief of staff during the violent second intifada from 2000-05 – and the man who launched Operation Defensive Shield, the hard-hitting Israeli response to the uprising – such an offer to the Palestinians surprised Israelis and made many doubt its sincerity.
But Mr. Mofaz has since then linked his plan to the economic demands of the country.
Maintaining the occupation of Palestinian territory, and the various security measures that includes, costs the Israeli economy dearly, he says. Using those funds to improve the living standards of average Israelis would be a far better priority, he argues, once security is assured.
In making this connection, Mr. Mofaz seems ready to dedicate his party's attention to the kind of social and economic demands made last summer by Israelis in widespread popular protests, something Ms. Livni did not do.