JERUSALEM — Four months ago, shortly after appearing to make it to the top of the Israeli political pyramid, Tzipi Livni stumbled.
Ehud Olmert had resigned as prime minister and Livni had won the Kadima primary election, but she was having trouble assembling a coalition government. Unable to get a key Kadima coalition member, the Shas Party, to stay in the government, Livni was forced to call for new general elections.
On Tuesday, Livni celebrated her vindication.
Scoring a come-from-behind victory at the ballot box, Livni edged Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, who had been the front-runner for nearly the entire race, to win an estimated 29 or 30 seats for Kadima, according to Israeli exit polls.
Now with a national mandate, the question Livni faces is whether she can leverage her new political standing to assemble a coalition government quickly. With Israel’s right wing also having scored significant electoral gains Tuesday, the task will not be easy.
Livni’s victory was aided by the splintering of the right-wing vote. Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu drew key votes from Netanyahu on the right even as the right-wing Knesset mandate soared. Likud grew to an estimated 27 or 28 seats from 12, and Yisrael Beiteinu increased its share to 14 or 15 seats from 11. Labor fell to 13 seats from 18.
Meanwhile Kadima, which had 29 seats before the election, held steady.
Kadima’s lead means Livni, currently the foreign minister, will have the first shot at assembling the minimum 61-seat majority needed to govern. If she fails to put together a coalition, Netanyahu would have his chance.
Livni based her campaign on three central elements: establishing her credentials as a national leader; attacking Netanyahu as a prime minister who had failed once and would fail again for the same reasons; and presenting her policies as the best prescription for Israel’s long-term survival.
She described the election as being about whether or not Israel should go for peace, casting Tuesday’s vote as a choice between hope and fear and emphasizing that negotiations on a final-status peace deal with the Palestinians must continue.
“Israel must, as she has in the past, combine military might with diplomatic initiative,” Livni said last week at the Herzliya Conference, an annual summit on Israeli state and security. He who thinks Israel can have “security without some kind of peace process is fooling himself, fooling the public and doesn’t understand the world we live in.”
“I believe that standing on the sidelines and not doing anything is not an option, it’s a bad option,” she said. “And if we don’t put a plan in Hebrew on the table, we will be forced to accept a plan in Arabic, French or English. And all these plans never will reflect Israel’s interests as Israel understands them.”
Livni started her campaign many months ago as Mrs. Clean, when government corruption was high on the national agenda and while Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other leading politicians were embroiled in scandal. Livni promised politics without corruption or coalition wheeling and dealing, and with a new, more functional system of government.
But the 22-day military operation in Gaza and the urgency of Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians made the issue of political corruption virtually irrelevant in the abbreviated campaign, which went into full gear only once the fighting in Gaza ended in mid-January.
Livni shifted her focus to the need to press ahead on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and cast her main rival, Netanyahu, as on a likely collision course with the Obama administration in Washington.
For his part, Netanyahu tried to portray Livni as lacking the experience and gravitas necessary to be prime minister.
“Tzipi Livni? It’s too big for her,” Likud’s campaign poster said.
Livni, who normally insists on keeping her public persona and private life separate, opened up a bit on the campaign trail, talking about the home in which she grew up.
Both her parents were members of the underground Irgun, which fought British forces in prestate Palestine. Her father, Eitan, was a commander and later a Likud Knesset member. Her mother, Sara, also was a well-known Irgun fighter who inspired one of the militia’s fight songs, “Up to the Barricades.”
Livni herself once opposed any notion of trading land for peace. But not unlike other prominent sons and daughters of the founding Likud elite, including Olmert, Livni gradually changed her position to support the idea of territorial compromise.
A former lawyer, Livni started her professional career as a Mossad agent. Since her election to the Knesset on the Likud list in 1999, Livni, under the tutelage of mentor Ariel Sharon, enjoyed what often is referred to in Israel as a “meteoric” rise. She has held various political offices, serving as the minister of regional cooperation, immigrant absorption, justice, housing and infrastructure, and most recently, foreign minister.
With her reputation for straight talk, intelligence and political moderation, Livni has managed to capture something of the popular imagination in an Israel weary of corruption and grandstanding among its politicians.
But it appeared to be Israelis’ weariness with the politicians of the past — specifically with the ex-prime minister Netanyahu — that drew crucial support away from Netanyahu in the final days of the race, giving Lieberman’s party a boost and handing the victory to Livni.
(JTA managing editor Uriel Heilman, senior political analyst Leslie Susser and Israel correspondent Dina Kraft contributed to this story.)