JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's largest party, relegated to the opposition after 2009 national elections, was choosing its leader on Tuesday in a rematch between a former peace negotiator and a one-time defense chief who directed Israel's tough response to the last Palestinian uprising.
The race between current Kadima Party chief Tzipi Livni and Shaul Mofaz is expected to be closely fought. Whoever wins will face the difficult task of trying to wrest power from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli leader has been riding high in polls, with Kadima tumbling in popularity. Elections are currently scheduled for October 2013.
Livni, 53, served as foreign minister in the previous government, and was lead negotiator with the Palestinians in the last extended round of peace talks that began in Annapolis, Maryland, in late 2007 but never recovered after Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip a year later.
Livni's campaign tried to portray her as the country's only credible alternative to Netanyahu, who leads the hawkish Likud Party. She has suggested her opponent, Mofaz, would be prepared to become part of a Netanyahu-led coalition.
"The story is not about me or him," she said. "The fundamental question is whether Kadima is an alternative to the Netanyahu government or will it become part of it at any price?"
Mofaz, 63, was chief of the Israeli military and later defense minister during the more than four-year Palestinian uprising that broke out in late 2000. Although he favors peacemaking with the Palestinians, he oversaw a harsh response against Palestinian militant groups, including the assassination of militant leaders, that stirred controversy abroad.
"I intend to win the general elections and to replace Netanyahu," Mofaz said after casting his ballot.
Livni is well-respected around the world from her days as foreign minister and appears to be more popular among the general public, but Mofaz has strong grass roots support and could potentially pose a bigger threat to Netanyahu thanks to his military background and Iranian heritage.
The Likud, which takes a hard line in peace making with the Palestinians, appeals to working-class Israeli Jews of Sephardic, or Middle Eastern, descent.
Voting was set to close at 10 p.m. (2000 GMT). Some 95,000 Kadima members are eligible to vote. With just three hours of voting left, only 20 percent of members had cast their votes.
Official results are expected after midnight, but Mofaz predicted he would be able to claim victory earlier.
The two also ran against each other in Kadima's last leadership contest in September 2008, which Livni won by a slim margin of several hundred votes.
Kadima was founded in November 2005 by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who defected from the Likud Party with many of its top officials to break free of opposition within Likud to some of his peace moves. Sharon had a calamitous stroke soon after, but despite his incapacitation, he remained the inspiration that propelled Kadima to power in early 2006 elections.
With Ehud Olmert at the helm, Kadima governed from 2006 to 2009. A cascade of corruption allegations forced him to step down, and the party's fortunes have waned since February 2009 national elections that brought Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu to power.
In the 2009 vote, Kadima won the most parliament seats, 28 of 120, and had a chance to form Israel's government. But Livni couldn't marshal enough allies to put together a governing coalition and Netanyahu, head of the Likud, was given the task.
Kadima was sidelined to the opposition. Internally, too, it has suffered, with polls showing some former backers defecting to the Labor Party and others expected to line up behind a former television personality, Yair Lapid, who has announced plans to set up his own party.
Recent polls show Kadima would win just a dozen seats if national elections were to be held today, while Netanyahu and his hawkish allies would be well-placed to lead the government again.