Last Updated: Wed Mar 28, 2012 10:54 am (KSA) 07:54 am (GMT)

Mofaz unseats Livni as head of Israel’s Kadima; party seen unlikely to oust Netanyahu

The Iranian-born Shaul Mofaz, a tough military chief of staff and later defense minister during a Palestinian uprising that erupted in 2000, called in his victory speech for party unity behind a new bid to defeat Netanyahu. (File photo)
The Iranian-born Shaul Mofaz, a tough military chief of staff and later defense minister during a Palestinian uprising that erupted in 2000, called in his victory speech for party unity behind a new bid to defeat Netanyahu. (File photo)

Former defense chief Shaul Mofaz has unseated former diplomat Tsipi Livni as head of Kadima, Israel’s largest opposition party, results of a leadership vote showed on Wednesday.

A final count gave Mofaz 61.7 percent of the vote, while former foreign minister Livni polled 37.2 percent, in a stunning defeat seen as punishment for a recent popularity nosedive that threatened to derail the party.

“I called Shaul Mofaz and wished him good luck. These are the results,” Livni, flashing a flustered smile, said in a rushed statement at her Tel Aviv headquarters, conceding the poll of Kadima’s 100,000 members.

While opinion polls have shown Mofaz as unlikely to defeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the next Israeli election expected by next year, some pundits feel the new Kadima head’s security credentials may enhance the party's electoral chances.

The Iranian-born Mofaz, a tough military chief of staff and later defense minister during a Palestinian uprising that erupted in 2000, called in his victory speech for party unity behind a new bid to defeat Netanyahu.

He vowed to “lead a new social order” to fight for the nation’s poor, seek a renewal of moribund Middle East diplomacy and “campaign for Israel’s image and its future.”

A grandfather of three and father of four, Mofaz, who chairs a prestigious parliamentary panel on defense affairs, has backed now-deadlocked peace talks with the Palestinians and shown a readiness for compromise.

The results of centrist Kadima’s contest showed he owed his victory in part to overwhelming support from Israeli Arab citizens among Kadima’s rank-and-file.

Some Kadima members hope Mofaz may revitalize their former ruling party, founded by former prime minister Ariel Sharon when he bolted from the right-wing Likud party now headed by Netanyahu, after a 2005 Gaza pullout.

Kadima won more parliamentary seats than Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party in Israel's last national ballot in 2009. But Livni failed to put together a coalition government that would have given her party real power.

Netanyahu instead joined forces with nationalist and religious parties to form a coalition government; Kadima’s popularity has plummeted ever since.

Though Israel’s biggest opposition party, recent opinion polls showed Kadima was on course to lose more than half its seats in Israel's 120-member parliament and could end up with just 12 seats, down from 28 now.

Ruhama Avraham, a Kadima parliament member and longtime supporter of Mofaz, said after his victory:

“Kadima will be judged by its ability to present a social economic program and also a diplomatic plan to the table. This is something Shaul Mofaz can do.”

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