(Updates with Mofaz calling to congratulate Livni)
By Allyn Fisher-Ilan and Ari Rabinovitch
TEL AVIV, Sept 18 (Reuters) - Tzipi Livni was narrowly elected leader of Israel’s ruling party and vowed on Thursday to start work immediately on forming a new coalition that will let her succeed the scandal-hit Ehud Olmert as prime minister.
After a tense night of counting following exit polls that showed the foreign minister cruising to a big win, officials said the final margin over Shaul Mofaz, a former general who is now transport minister, was just over one percentage point.
The final result was a relief to Livni, a 50-year-old lawyer, who had declared victory to supporters hours earlier.
"The good guys won," the one-time Mossad intelligence agent had told her backers within the centrist Kadima party.
Party spokesman Shmuel Dahan put the final result at 43.1 percent for Livni to 42.0 percent for Mofaz — a huge swing from the 10- to 12-point margins shown in exit polls. Two other candidates trailed well behind.
"The national mission ... is to create stability quickly," Livni told reporters outside her Tel Aviv home at dawn after an anxious night of waiting for the count. "On the level of government in Israel, we have to deal with difficult threats."
She made no direct mention of the peace negotiations she has been heading with the Palestinians for the past year. Chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurie welcomed the choice of Livni, saying he believed she would "pursue peace moves with us".
Facing what are likely to be complicated talks with potential political partners, Livni said: "Tomorrow, I will begin meeting with representatives of the factions in order to form quickly a coalition that can deal with all of these challenges that lie ahead."
Dubbed "Mrs Clean" by one Israeli newspaper columnist, the usually dour foreign minister is widely seen as the antithesis of Olmert, a glad-handing veteran politician who faces possible indictment for corruption.
But the daughter of Zionist guerrilla fighters of the 1940s will require combative spirit and political flair to consolidate her goal of becoming Israel’s first woman leader since the redoubtable Golda Meir in the 1970s.
Columnists in major Israeli newspapers noted that Livni was elected Kadima chairman by fewer than 20,000 voters — half of one percent of the Israeli population — casting doubt on her ability to claim a public mandate.
Mofaz’s campaign had initially threatened to challenge the vote count, but Army Radio later quoted aides to the Iranian-born former defence chief, popular among fellow Jews of Middle Eastern as opposed to European origin, as saying he will accept the results.
In an early morning telephone call, Mofaz congratulated Livni on her victory, radio reported.
Olmert will notify the cabinet on Sunday of his resignation, and must then go to Israel’s president, who will be travelling abroad, to formally resign and start the transition process, his spokesman, Mark Regev, said.
But the outgoing premier has vowed to exercise his right to stay on in a caretaker capacity until Livni forges a coalition government. That process, involving deals with ambitious Labour party leader Ehud Barak on the left and influential Jewish religious parties on the right, could take weeks or months.
Many believe there may yet be an early parliamentary election, which polls show Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud would win. (Editing by Charles Dick)