Olmert Out. Livni In?

There hasn't been a dull moment in Israeli politics lately. In a dramatic move that everyone knew was coming -- but nobody knew when -- Prime Minister Ehud Olmert tendered his resignation to Israeli President Shimon Peres Sunday night, just in time for the evening news.

Peres must now fulfill his constitutional duty by calling on a member of Knesset to try to form a government. That challenge, which is essentially the privilege to attempt become Israel's next prime minister, is expected to go to the newly crowned head of the Kadima party, Tzipi Livni.

The current foreign minister earned the right last week after she beat Shaul Mofaz in a primary by a grand total of 431 votes. Even that narrow 1% margin overstates her controversial victory. On election day, Livni's lawyers, alarmed by what looked like a low turnout, successfully petitioned the party courts to keep the polls open longer than scheduled -- nobody knows what the results might have looked like if that hadn't happened.

As if that weren't bad enough, 15 minutes before the precincts closed, media outlets broadcast exit polls forecasting a double-digit win for Livni, which may have discouraged supporters of her opponent from making their voice heard. Perhaps worst of all, 430 votes from the Bedouin village of Rahat, where Mofaz is said to have had overwhelming support, were disqualified.

Believing defeat was unfairly snatched from the jaws of victory, Mofaz shocked even his closest advisors by storming out of the arena, announcing he was taking a break from political life. The relatively minor shockwaves triggered by his departure may prove to be significantly stronger when the next elections are held.

There was an ethnic aspect to the contest that is likely to have ramifications. Given his standing as a prominent Sephardi Jew, Mofaz's bitterness at losing a race to a full-fledged member of the Ashkenazi elite should resonate with a community that has long felt discriminated against. Sephardi voters have called the Likud party their home for three decades and as a result of the Mofaz defeat, the decision of many in 2006 to vote for Kadima may prove a one-time aberration.

With Mofaz's desertion, Kadima has also now lost the security bona fides of a former IDF chief of staff and minister of defense. A party that ran three years ago on Ariel Sharon's record and could boast of having a lineup that included heavyweights like Peres, Olmert, and Mofaz now has someone with no security experience leading what are perceived as a mediocre bunch of party hacks.