Tzipi Livni Rolls the Dice on Elections

Tzipi Livni, the head of Israel's ruling party Kadima, is saying "hello elections, goodbye blackmail" in her decision to quit trying to wrangle together a coalition deal with fellow political parties.

The woman who would be prime minister told the country Sunday night, "There are others who are willing to pay any price, but I am not willing to sell the state and its citizens only to become the prime minister."

The reference was a not-so-veiled snub at her main rival for the job, Benjamin Netanyahu, who, observers speculate quietly, has made a deal with Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party, to acquiesce to their demands in return for their support.

It is Shas that Livni, a political centrist, blames for foiling the coalition talks with a steep price tag for joining a government. Their conditions included two zingers: taking the future of Jerusalem off the table in negotiations with the Palestinians, and demanding almost $400 million in social welfare funds aimed at their target constituency -- poor, religious families with numerous children.

Netanyahu was forcefully thrown out of the prime minister's office by Israeli voters in 1999, but as leader of the opposition he has regained some of his former popularity; according to the polls, he is Livni's stiffest competition.

However, polls Monday greeted Livni, Israel's second female foreign minister since Golda Meir -- who hopes to follow in her footsteps to also become prime minister -- with some good news. A poll by Dahar Research Institute showed Kadima, the centrist political party she leads and which is currently in power, as winning 29 seats as opposed to 26 seats for Netanyahu's opposition Likud in the 120-member parliament, known as the Knesset. Another poll by TNS Teleseker showed Kadima winning 31 seats and Likud 29 if the election were held today.

Livni was given the task of forming a new government after she won as head of Kadima last month, after current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced his resignation under a cloud of corruption investigations. She has been presenting herself as a new breed of politician on the Israeli political scene: one with clean hands.