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Who Will Lead Israel?

JERUSALEM--With Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announcing that he will resign after his Kadima party chooses a new leader next month, the struggle for power in Israel now pits a hawk against a dove--and the hawk is gaining.

Shaul Mofaz, a former military chief and defense minister who has threatened to attack Iran, seems to have the all-important advantage in "electability" over his more liberal party rival, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who is currently leading negotiations with the Palestinians.

After Kadima's September 17 primary, the new leader's electability will be determined not by the public but by the Knesset. Mofaz's war record, gender and salt-of-the-earth image seem to make him more suitable to the current parliament, with its right-wing, religious coloring.

The winner of the party primary will have to secure the support of a Knesset majority for a new coalition government. Otherwise, early elections will be called, probably next spring. And that is a prospect most members of this exceedingly unpopular Knesset fear like the plague.

For Kadima, national elections could be disastrous; polls say the party would take a beating and the right-wing Likud would be elevated to power.

Thus, for Kadima's 65,000 potential primary voters, Mofaz, with his popularity among parliamentarians, appears the better bet to keep the party in power longer--until, they hope, the scheduled end of the Knesset term in November 2010.

Such are the calculations that Mofaz, currently the transportation minister, is counting on. "The members of the current coalition wish to preserve it, and I think that under my leadership more members will join," he said after Olmert's announcement.

Surveys of Kadima voters had shown Livni lapping the field in the race for party leadership, putting her in line to be the first female Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir. But by last Friday, Israel's leading polling group, the Dahaf Institute, found Livni and Mofaz in a statistical tie.

Olmert's impending resignation, brought on by his mounting legal problems and flat-lining popularity, doesn't seem to move Israel any closer to peace or war.

The government's negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and Syria have been running in place all along, and now that Olmert joins President George W. Bush as a lame duck, the chance for a breakthrough on either track becomes even more obscure. The tenuous truce in Gaza between Israel and Hamas remains in the interest of both parties; Olmert's impending departure shouldn't change that.

However, if and when Mofaz or Livni takes over as premier--two long-shot candidates are also in the race--things could get interesting.

In early June, Mofaz told the daily Yediot Aharonot: "If Iran continues with its program for developing nuclear weapons, we will attack it. The sanctions are ineffective. Attacking Iran in order to stop its nuclear plans will be unavoidable."

By contrast, Livni, a lawyer and former Mossad agent, is not known for making rash public statements, tending to trust more in quiet negotiations.

If, on the other hand, the new Kadima leader cannot form a government, Likud chairman and former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu becomes the heavy favorite to win early elections next spring and move into Olmert's office.

By that time, of course, there would also be a new leader in the White House. For now, the uncertainty about Israel's political future is greatly compounded by the uncertainty about America's.

By Larry Derfner