Livni likely to win primary &mdash but can she form coalition

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

With the Kadima Party leadership primary just days away, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni looks like a sure winner.

The latest opinion poll shows her 20 percentage points ahead of her closest rival in the contest that could produce Israel’s next prime minister.

The Kadima vote Wed-nesday, Sept. 17, comes after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced he would resign following a string of corruption scandals. Assuming the primary winner can put together a coalition, she — or he — will automatically assume the premiership.

Livni’s closest competition, according to the polls, is Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz. For Mofaz to have even an outside chance at winning the primary, the pollsters would have to be significantly off.

That is not beyond the bounds of possibility.

In the run-up to the 2005 Labor Party leadership primary, polls showed Shimon Peres beating his main rival, Amir Peretz, by 20 points. But Peretz pulled off a major upset, edging out his octogenarian rival by 2 percent. What pollsters hadn’t considered was Peretz’s brilliant election-day machine for getting supporters to the polls.

Mofaz, a former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff who has a strong body of activist Kadima supporters, will be hoping for something similar.

Kadima’s party leader will be elected by the party’s membership — about 72,000 people.

The key factor in the Kadima primary — the party’s first since its founding by Ariel Sharon as a centrist alternative to the Likud Party — has been the widespread perception that Livni is the only candidate capable of winning a national election for Kadima.

The latest poll, conducted by Dialog, shows Livni winning with 40 percent of the Kadima vote, followed by Mofaz with 20 percent, Public Security Minister Avi Dichter with 6 percent and Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit with 5 percent; 28 percent are undecided.

If no candidate wins at least 40 percent in the Sept. 17 vote, there will be a runoff between the top two a week later. The poll shows Livni defeating Mofaz in a runoff by 51 percent to 31 percent.

The first task for the Kadima victor will be to try to form a governing coalition.

Success will depend first and foremost on whether he or she can count on all 29 Kadima Knesset votes. If Mofaz wins, Livni will leave Kadima and form a breakaway faction; Mofaz might do the same if she wins.

On the assumption that she wins and Kadima does not split, Livni has been receiving contradictory advice.

Some of her confidants are urging her to do all she can to form a government and then run in new elections in a year or two. They argue that if Livni establishes herself as a bona fide national leader, she will have a much better chance of winning.

Others say that instead of trying to form a government, Livni should exploit her current wave of popularity and go for immediate general elections.

Labor, which is currently down in the polls, also faces an acute dilemma:

If Livni wins, should Labor join the coalition and try to rebuild its electoral strength from inside the government, or clip Livni’s wings by bolting the coalition and thereby preventing her from having enough seats to form a government?

If Labor goes in with Livni, it will help boost her standing as prime minister; if it stays out, it risks early elections in which polls show Labor would take an unprecedented beating.

The new political situation in Israel highlights the Labor-Kadima paradox. On the one hand, the two parties share a similar centrist ideology and are natural allies against the Israeli right. On the other hand, precisely because they are ideologically close, they must fight for the same political space.

Likud, which still leads in most polls, will want to press for early elections.

As for the outgoing Olmert, even though he will formally resign after the Kadima primaries next week, he will stay on as acting prime minister until a new government is formed.

Once the Kadima primary is over, the new Kadima leader will have six weeks to form a government.