JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Tzipi Livni, Israel’s soft-spoken peace negotiator with the Palestinians, will have to prove her toughness and political savvy quickly following her election as leader of the centrist Kadima party.
Now tantalizingly close to becoming Israel’s second woman prime minister in a country where Golda Meir was once admiringly called the only man in the cabinet, Livni must fight in the political trenches for a coalition government to lead.
Failure to forge partnership deals and a parliamentary majority would result in a new election, a contest that opinion polls show tough-talking right-winger Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party would win.
As Israel’s foreign minister, Livni, 50, has led peace talks with the Palestinians — U.S.-sponsored negotiations that have so far failed to produce an accord that Washington had hoped to achieve by the end of this year.
She came to politics just over a decade ago, following a stint in the Mossad intelligence service while she was a student in Paris, and then a career as a corporate attorney.
Dubbed “Mrs Clean” by one Israeli newspaper columnist, the usually dour foreign minister is widely seen as the antithesis of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a glad-handing veteran politician embroiled in a corruption scandal now forcing him from office.
Other commentators have described Livni as a product of a well-oiled political machine powered by associates of her businessman husband and question whether she will bring much change.
Olmert did not take part in Wednesday’s Kadima leadership vote, though he may stay on as caretaker prime minister for weeks or even months as Livni tries to form a new government.
Livni first had a public falling out with Olmert more than a year ago, calling for his resignation after a commission roundly criticized his handling of the 2006 war against Lebanon’s Hezbollah guerrillas.
He refused, yet Livni remained in government in an uneasy partnership. As Olmert’s deputy, she sits at his side at the cabinet table and serves as his chief negotiator with the Palestinians.
As the Olmert corruption scandal deepened in recent months, Livni hammered home a message that “values and norms” must be upheld in Israeli politics, and geared up for the Kadima race pitting her against former general Shaul Mofaz.
Mofaz highlighted his security experience and Livni’s own role in the Lebanon debacle. But, like Olmert and Netanyahu, Livni hails from hard Zionist stock that bolsters her credentials with many voters.
Her father, Eitan, led an armed underground in the 1940s that fought for Jewish control of all Palestine rather than partitioning the then British-ruled territory with Arabs.
Despite Livni’s pedigree, many Israelis wonder whether she is up to their country’s many security challenges.
“She will have to prove she is no gentle dove but can lead the nation in times of war, without appearing to be a puppet of Defense Minister Ehud Barak,” commentator Aluf Benn wrote in the Haaretz newspaper.
Barak, another ex-general and former prime minister, leads the centre-left Labor Party, the largest partner in Olmert’s coalition.
Livni has two adult sons with husband Naftali Spitzer.
Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Catherine Evans