JERUSALEM – Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni took a major step Wednesday toward becoming the nation’s second female prime minister after television exit polls found her winning the election to lead the government’s ruling party.

Exit polls for the major Israeli television stations predicted a clear victory for Livni, a popular, diplomacy-first advocate, over Shaul Mofaz, a more politically uncompromising former defense minister.

By winning the Kadima Party primary, Livni is poised to succeed Ehud Olmert as prime minister and become the second woman to lead Israel in its 60-year history. The first was Golda Meir, who served as prime minister from 1969 to 1974.

To repeat that milestone, Livni will have to use her diplomatic acumen to persuade skeptical political adversaries to join her in forming a new coalition government that can lead the nation.

If she fails to form a coalition by early November, she’d be forced to lead the Kadima Party in national elections. And polls find her facing a difficult task in topping Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud Party leader and former prime minister, who’s taken a harder line on peace talks with Israel’s adversaries.

By choosing Livni over Mofaz, Kadima voters implicitly endorsed the foreign minister’s diplomacy-before-warfare approach to tackling Israel’s biggest concerns: making peace with the Palestinians and neutering Iran’s nuclear program.

Should Livni succeed in becoming the next prime minister, she’s expected to press ahead with two of Olmert’s biggest diplomatic gambits: U.S.-backed peace talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and nascent, indirect negotiations with Syria that are being overseen by Turkey.

Both tracks face significant hurdles, and there’s a growing sense among politicians and academics in the region that there’ll be no diplomatic breakthroughs until U.S. voters choose a new president.

A perhaps more pressing issue will be Israel’s international campaign to quash Iran’s nuclear program. Israel views Iran’s refusal to give up its nuclear ambitions as a serious threat, and several Israeli leaders have warned that Israel’s military might try to attack.

During the Kadima primary campaign, Mofaz warned that Israel might have “no alternative” but to strike Iran if President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad kept defying international efforts to investigate his nation’s nuclear program.

The Israeli news media cast the campaign between Livni and Mofaz as “Mrs. Clean” versus “Mr. Security,” a choice between a diplomat and a warrior.

Israelis who think that the country needs a leader with long military experience favored Mofaz, a veteran soldier who led Israel’s crushing military response during the second Palestinian uprising.

In the end, “Mrs. Clean” was the choice of Kadima voters who were looking for someone so far untainted by the clouds of corruption that have engulfed many of Israel’s leaders, including Olmert. Olmert is being forced to relinquish control of the nation as he tries to fend off possible indictment by Israel’s attorney general in a still-unfolding series of political corruption investigations.

He set the stage for Livni’s victory by announcing his intent to resign once Kadima chose a new leader.

He’s expected to resign soon after Livni’s victory becomes official, but will remain as acting prime minister until someone is elevated to replace him.

Once Olmert officially resigns, President Shimon Peres probably will tap Livni to try to form a new ruling coalition without calling new nationwide elections. She’ll have about 40 days to form the coalition, which could prove difficult: she must cobble together a majority from among the factious parties in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.

Livni probably can count on the left-leaning Labor Party, but she also may need to draw in the conservative religious Shas Party, which is demanding the return of government cash incentives for families that have more children.

Shas has threatened to reject any coalition that tries to proceed with peace talks that could cede control of parts of Jerusalem to the Palestinians.

If Livni can’t put together a coalition, Israel will have national elections within 90 days. That would open the door for Netanyahu and the Likud Party to return to power.

Most polls find Netanyahu the favorite to win general elections, but some surveys have found Livni and him in a close contest.

He’s criticized Olmert’s peace negotiations with Syria and the Palestinian Authority. If Netanyahu took power, he’d be more likely than Livni would be to break off the talks.

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