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Israel's Kadima Party dumps Tzipi Livni for Shaul Mofaz

JERUSALEM — Israel's main opposition party, Kadima, has voted out its leader, Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister and contender for prime minister, replacing her with former defense chief Shaul Mofaz in a party primary whose results were announced Wednesday.

The loss threatened to scuttle the political career of Livni, once seen as a rising star but criticized in recent years for failing to articulate an alternative to the rightist government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Final results showed Mofaz soundly defeating Livni, gaining 61.7 percent of the vote. Livni received 37.2 percent.

"These are the results," a stunned Livni said at her Tel Aviv headquarters, declining to answer reporters' questions and saying she was going to sleep after a long night. Analysts speculated that she might leave politics.

The outcome was a crushing blow to Livni's once-high hopes of becoming Israel's first female prime minister since the legendary Golda Meir. Livni had led Kadima, a centrist party founded by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, in the 2009 elections, gaining more parliamentary seats than Netanyahu's Likud Party, but she was unable to forge a majority coalition.

Raised as an ardent nationalist and coming from the ranks of the Likud, Livni moderated her views and advocated territorial compromise and two independent states to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians. But that message has faded with the protracted stalemate in peace efforts and the emergence of Iran's nuclear program as the issue of primary Israeli concern.

Netanyahu has led a stable rightist coalition with strong public support, while Livni has been unable to present an alternative with broad popular appeal. Recent polls have found Kadima losing about half its 28 seats in the 120-member Parliament in the next election, due to be held next year.

Mofaz, 63, a former defense minister and army chief of staff, is seen as having the security credentials necessary to pose a stiffer challenge to Netanyahu. But in his victory speech, Mofaz chose to focus on the economic concerns that triggered a wave of social protests that swept Israel last summer and shook the government.

"There is no military security without social security," Mofaz told cheering supporters. "I intend to lead Israel to a new social order."

(Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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