JERUSALEM - Israel's foreign minister won a narrow victory early Thursday to be head of the country's governing party, giving her the chance to be the nation's first female leader in 34 years and sending a message that peace talks with the Palestinians could likely continue.
Tzipi Livni, 50, won by a margin of 431 votes — a 1.1 percentage point — in the Kadima Party primary elections, besting former defense minister and military chief Shaul Mofaz.
Livni will replace Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as head of Kadima. Olmert, the target of a career-ending corruption probe, promised to step down as soon as a new Kadima leader was chosen.
"The national responsibility (bestowed) by the public brings me to approach this job with great awe," Livni said shortly after officials results were announced. She now gets a chance to set up Israel's next government.
The victory declaration came after official results showed Livni taking the race by a far narrower victory than polls had predicted. She barely edged out Mofaz. Israeli media reported that Mofaz called Livni to congratulate her, and rejected a legal adviser's proposal that he appeal the results.
Three TV exit polls released just before the voting ended Wednesday night had showed a clear victory for Livni over Mofaz, about 47 percent to 37 percent, leading to premature celebrations.
But official results saw that margin shrink dramatically, to 43.1 percent for Livni and 42 percent for Mofaz — a 431-vote edge. This was not the first time exit polls have badly missed their mark here.
Livni had needed 40 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff next week.
After she is assigned the task, Livni will have 42 days to form a new ruling coalition. If she succeeds, she will become Israel's first female prime minister since Golda Meir. If she fails, the country will hold elections in early 2009, a year and a half ahead of schedule.
Olmert will remain as a caretaker leader until a new coalition is approved by parliament.
Olmert spokesman Mark Regev said the prime minister called Livni to congratulate her on her victory and would notify the Cabinet on Sunday that he would resign. "After that, he will resign," Regev said.
With opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu's hardline Likud Party polling well, neither Kadima nor its coalition partners appear eager for a new election.
But the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, which could be key to building a new coalition, has already served notice that it would not join a government that is willing to negotiate the fate of disputed Jerusalem with the Palestinians.
As lead peace negotiator, Livni is committed to discussing all the outstanding issues between Israel and the Palestinians, and the future of Jerusalem is at the heart of the conflict. Shas' position will require some deft political maneuvering on Livni's part if she is to sidestep elections.
"If it becomes clear that Jerusalem is on the negotiating table ... then we won't be part of the coalition," party spokesman Roi Lachmanovitch said.
Nationally, polls show Livni roughly tied with Netanyahu should elections be held today. A new nationwide vote would likely turn into a referendum on the current effort to forge a historic peace deal with the Palestinians.
"I am really happy that Livni won because she is committed to the peace process," said dovish Israeli lawmaker Yossi Beilin. "I think the right thing for her to do now is to form a coalition that wants to promote peace rather than a broad government with the right."
Foreign minister since 2006, Livni is a rare female power figure in a nation dominated by macho military men and a religious establishment with strict views on the role of women.
A former lawyer, army captain and one-time agent in the Mossad spy agency, Livni favors diplomacy over confrontation, even though she said last week that she has "no problem pulling the trigger when necessary."
A victory by Mofaz would have raised serious questions about Israel's involvement in peace talks with both the Palestinians and Syria. His approach is seen as far less conciliatory than hers. Had he won, the Iranian-born politician could have become Israel's first prime minister of Middle Eastern, or Sephardic, descent.
Two other candidates, Cabinet minister Meir Sheetrit and former Shin Bet security service director Avi Dichter lagged far behind in the polls.
Joyce Amiel, a Kadima supporter in Tel Aviv, said she was voting for Livni "mainly because she is a woman, even though her positions are not clear. We think she would do the best job. We want her to win."
Casting her vote in Tel Aviv, the usually reserved Livni bubbled with uncharacteristic enthusiasm. She said she was pleased with the turnout at her polling station and urged people to vote.
Palestinian Information Minister Riad Malki was hopeful that peace talks could succeed under Israel's new leadership.
"We welcome the results of the election, and we are going to deal with any new prime minister in Israel," he told The Associated Press. "We hope this new prime minister will be ready to ... reach a peace deal with the Palestinians that ends the occupation and allows the establishment of an independent Palestinian state living beside Israel."
The primary was Kadima's first since the party was founded by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2005. Sharon suffered a debilitating stroke in early 2006, and Olmert subsequently led the party to victory in elections.
Sharon set up Kadima as a personal bastion after his hard-line colleagues in Likud blasted his unilateral pullout from the Gaza Strip in 2005. It was widely predicted Kadima would disintegrate after his exit, but the moderate Livni's victory appeared to give it a chance of survival.
Olmert is under police investigation over his financial dealings. But he has been pursuing peace talks with the Palestinians and has pledged to continue as long as he is in office.
However, both he and his Palestinian counterparts now say they are unlikely to reach the U.S.-set target date of year's end for a final peace deal. Also, any agreement they might reach would not be implemented until Abbas regains control of the Gaza Strip, overrun by Islamic Hamas militants in June 2007.
Israeli political science professor Gadi Wolfsfeld predicted Livni could use a peace deal to win a national election.
"If she comes to a tentative agreement with the Palestinians, why not run on that platform, which would be very good for her?" he said.