Members of Israel's ruling party head for the polls today to elect a new leader, pitting a top peace negotiator against a tough-talking former general in a race that could have profound implications for the future of the nation's political center.
Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has pledged to resign in the face of mounting corruption charges once the new Kadima party leader is elected. His successor will be charged with guiding peace negotiations with the Palestinians that have shown few signs of progress, as well as tentative but ongoing talks with Syria.
The two top candidates, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, are in many ways a study in contrasts.
Mofaz is a career military man who, as army chief of staff, oversaw Israel's efforts to suppress the Palestinian intifada that broke out in the fall of 2000. He hasn't revealed much about his views on either the Palestinian or Syrian talks, but has spoken harshly about Iranian nuclear ambitions and recently courted controversy by predicting that a military confrontation with Tehran was inevitable.
Livni is hardly a natural dove; she was a lifelong member of the right-wing Likud who followed her mentor, Ariel Sharon, when he broke with the party in 2005 and formed Kadima. But as foreign minister under Olmert, she has been in charge of the talks with the Palestinian Authority aimed at a two-state solution, and her strength as a party and government leader would partially hinge on the outcome of those talks.
The two other candidates, Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit and Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, are expected to receive only small fractions of the vote.
Mofaz has primarily touted his military background as an advantage over Livni, stating, "Whoever lacks understanding in security matters cannot serve as prime minister."
Livni has responded that "good judgment is critical" for the position, but added that an effective prime minister should be able "to ask the right questions to the excellent generals that Israel has, in the place where the generals should be: the IDF," or Israel Defense Forces.
Hanging in the balance in their contest will be Kadima's future position in the raucous Israeli political spectrum. Livni, if elected, would be expected to solidify Kadima's centrist stance, whereas Mofaz probably would push the party to the right.
With the historically leftist Labor Party in a weak position, Labor chief Ehud Barak has been pressing a hawkish line and is considered skeptical of the U.S.-backed peace talks. Kadima under Livni probably would continue to be a key force behind the peace drive.
"The Israelis do want a centrist party," said Gadi Wolfsfeld, a political science professor at Hebrew University. "More and more people in the center realize that we're going to have to give up lots of territory" to achieve peace.
Livni, who holds the lead according to most polls, has run her campaign partly on the argument that Mofaz's right-wing tendencies "would turn Kadima into a second Likud," author Hillel Halkin wrote in a Jerusalem Post opinion piece.
The leadership race comes amid steady speculation that the loser may bolt the party, further pushing it to either the right or left under the victor.
Mofaz, a 59-year-old native Iranian, fought in the 1967 Middle East War and bears the military pedigree that Israelis tend to favor in their leaders. He has staked out a more conservative position than Livni, particularly in regard to Iran.
"You can argue that Mofaz is more right-wing than [Likud chief Benjamin] Netanyahu," said Wolfsfeld, who noted that Mofaz jumped to Kadima only after losing the Likud leadership race to Netanyahu.
Mofaz also has the potential to be an ethnic ground-breaker: He could become the first Israeli prime minister of non-European descent.
Despite trailing in most polls, Mofaz has confidently predicted that he will triumph; on Monday, he specified his exact margin of victory, saying he would win with 43.7% of the vote among Kadima's estimated 74,000 members. If no candidate receives more than 40%, the two top finishers will continue into a second round of voting next week.
Livni, a 50-year-old lawyer by training, is a comparative Israeli blueblood. Both her parents were prominent members of the Irgun, a paramilitary group that helped found the Jewish state. She entered politics with Likud in 1999 and rose quickly through the ranks as a close protege of Sharon's.
Livni's reputation suffered when she called for Olmert to step down after a public inquiry criticized his handling of the 2006 conflict with the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Olmert refused and rode out the political storm, and Livni chose to remain in the government -- drawing accusations of both disloyalty and a lack of commitment to her own principles.
Though Livni appears to be the front-runner in today's vote, her bid to become Israel's second female prime minister -- Golda Meir held the post from 1969 to '74 -- is hindered by doubts about her lack of military experience.
"There's still some hesitance in people's minds about does she have the backbone," said a former Likud Cabinet minister, speaking on condition that his name not be published.
The new Kadima leader will face another immediate challenge: fending off a return to power by Netanyahu. Despite a checkered run as prime minister from 1996 to '99, he has become a force in opposition and has re-energized Likud, which was weakened when Sharon broke away. Recent polls have shown that Likud would win a general election if it were held now, defeating both Kadima and Labor.
"No one but Netanyahu is anxious to go to elections," said Wolfsfeld. "Netanyahu would like the elections to start tomorrow."
For the winner of the Kadima contest, the best way to fend off Netanyahu's ascension will be to form a new ruling coalition and govern effectively, delaying general elections until 2010.
The victor will have up to 90 days to forge a coalition, which must then be approved by the 120-member Knesset, or parliament. Failure to do so would trigger an immediate election.
The traditional horse-trading that accompanies the building of a coalition could be influenced this time by a wild card: Netanyahu cutting his own deals with smaller parties to keep them out of the new coalition and hasten the collapse of the government.