Israel Poised To Elect Woman PM

Tzipi Livni, Israeli Foreign Minister and candidate for Kadima party leadership, gives a speech before casting her vote during the Kadima elections in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sept. 17, 2008.
AP Photo/Bernat Armangue
This story was written by CBS News producer Ben Plesser, reporting for CBSNews.com from Tel Aviv.
In Israel, where questions of life and death are permanently at the top of the public agenda, political battles are traditionally fought with a particular intensity.

But, in the absence of an active peace process or a hot war, the ideological gaps between the various parties have narrowed so much that they are hard to tell apart.

Perhaps that's why Israelis are showing remarkably little interest in Wednesday's election, which will likely determine Israel's next prime minister.

The current leader, Ehud Olmert, is about to step down. He's the target of an ongoing police investigation into allegations of corruption.

Wednesday, members of his party, Kadima, are voting for one of four candidates for the position of party leader. The winner will have 42 days to form a parliamentary coalition and become the next prime minister.

Polls predict a landslide victory for Tzipi Livni, Israel's foreign minister, who promises to make negotiations with the Palestinians her top priority. But the polls may be underestimating support for the other leading candidate, transportation minister Shaul Mofaz.

Like many Israeli politicians, Mofaz is a former military general and he hopes his image as a safe pair of hands will help secure the 40 percent majority required for him to win the first round of voting. His supporters also argue that he's more likely than Livni to be able to build a coalition.

In Israel's parliamentary system, a government is formed by a coalition of parties who, combined, control enough seats to hold power. As head of the ruling party, Kadima's new leader will have to try and build a new parliamentary coalition.

(AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
Bringing together enough political parties to hold a parliamentary majority will test the new leader's political savvy to the limit. Mofaz, seen at left, may prove more acceptable to the ultra orthodox parties, while Livni is hoping to form a very broad coalition.

If the election winner also succeeds in building a coalition, they get to then hand-pick the next government ministers. If a coalition is not formed before the six-week constitutional deadline, national elections will be held within three months.

Kadima only has 73,000 eligible members and, at best, turnout at the 100 polling places across the country is expected to be around 60 percent.

"It's not every day that such an awesome responsibility is placed on so few shoulders," leading Israeli newspaper commentator Sima Kadmon told CBS News.

Many Israelis may have lost interest in this race but there is a lot at stake; Israel's negotiations with the Palestinians and, indirectly, with Syria, have effectively stalled as all sides wait for new faces to arrive at the negotiating table.

The most important difference between the two candidates' stump speeches has been tone.

Livni, a 50-year-old lawyer and mother of two is Israel's top negotiator in the stalled peace talks and was a dovish presence in the current government. She is a former secret agent, the most popular government minister, and the country's most powerful woman since Golda Meir served as prime minister almost 40 years ago.

"I will not be Golda the second," she said, "I will be Tzipi Livni the first."

Mofaz, 59, an Iranian-born former army chief of staff and defense minister, is considered the more hawkish candidate. He famously said in August that Iran was "on the verge of a nuclear breakthrough."

Unless the world is able to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions, Mofaz warned, Israel will take military action. The price of oil went up $11 a barrel on the day he made the comments.

While gender has not been a central issue in the long campaign, toughness has. Many here see Livni as a negotiator and Mofaz as a fighter. In many ways, a handful of Kadima members will be choosing the body language Israel uses in its long and fateful negotiations with its neighbors.