Israeli Leaders Furiously Jostle for Position

The first scenario was always unlikely because with Kadima occupying the Israeli political center, there was little chance that opponents on the Left and Right would ever agree to unite behind a candidate to replace him. Moreover, given that Olmert inherited Sharon's essentially dictatorial powers within Kadima, he could easily fend off an internal challenge.

As for the possibility of the Knesset disbanding itself, Israel's suicide rate is one of the world's lowest, and its political class is no exception. When the Knesset points a gun to its own head, rest assured it contains blanks.

This is how a man who throughout most of his tenure could only dream of President Bush's current approval rating survived in office for over two years despite conducting what was widely perceived as a failed war and facing a slew of corruption allegations.

But when the latest allegations forced his key coalition ally, Ehud Barak, to demand a timetable for his ouster, the balls Olmert had been juggling in the air came crashing down. Seeing his political demise and a possible indictment as imminent, Olmert chose to leave with some dignity.

Shaul Mofaz, the former IDF chief of staff and defense minister, and Tzipi Livni, the current foreign minister, are the leading candidates to replace him. To take the reins of state, they will have to achieve two things. First, win Kadima's September 17 primary. Second, form a governing coalition.

The latest polls give Livni an edge in the first but the veteran pols give Mofaz an edge in the second, and that may prove far more important to the outcome of this race. For if a coalition cannot be formed, elections would be triggered, with a resurgent Benjamin Netanyahu waiting in the wings.

Polls suggest that Mofaz would stand no chance against Netanyahu today while Livni might. But more importantly, many of Kadima's current Knesset members are unlikely to be reelected to the next Knesset. With the next mandated elections not until November 2010, they and the many Kadima primary voters they have registered are looking for the person who can keep the gravy train afloat for two more years. For his part, Barak knows he will be trounced in elections and will likely join any coalition to keep them at bay.

If Livni is hoping her popularity in the general public and her value in a potential election will win her the support of Kadima primary voters, she is probably mistaken. With the legacy of its founder tarnished by over 4,000 Hamas rockets and with the collapse of the unilateral approach that was its raison d'etre into Israeli politics, Kadima is about power and power alone. For such a party, the certainty of power today is always more intoxicating than the promise of power tomorrow.

The low political suicide rate in Israel should once again prove decisive. To win, the more popular Livni must show not that she can win an election but that she can avoid one.