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Israel Exit Polls Show Livni as Clear Winner in Race for Prime Minister

Exit polls in Israel show foreign minister Tzipi Livni has won a primary election to lead the ruling centrist Kadima party and likely become the Jewish state's new prime minister. She would replace Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who says he will step down as he battles corruption allegations. VOA Jerusalem Correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

The elections come as the Palestinian peace process brokered by the United States stalls over the failure by both sides to overcome the long-standing issues of Jewish settlements, the Palestinians' right of return to lands seized by Israel and the status of Jerusalem.

Potential voters interviewed this week expressed frustration over the lack of progress in the negotiations, as well as corruption in the government, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's handling of Israel's war on Islamic militants in neighboring Lebanon in 2006.

Exit poll results released by major broadcasters shortly before the voting ended late Wednesday showed Tzipi Livni well ahead of her closest opponent, transportation minister Shaul Mofaz.

Livni, a former operative for Israel's intelligence service and now Israel's top negotiator in talks with the Palestinians, prefers a diplomatic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the same time, she has said she would not hesitate to use force if necessary.

Analysts say her stance won favor among left-wing party members who want to see a negotiated end to the crisis and right-wing voters who do not rule out a military solution.

Pundits say security threats and frustration over the lack of progress in negotiations has pushed Israeli voters toward the right. However, political scientist Gideon Doron at Tel Aviv University says Livni's apparent victory is a sign that many Israelis are leaning toward giving peace negotiations another chance.

"I would say the status quo will prevail, meaning that peace talks will continue and more or less the pursuit of a solution of some kind of a compromise with the Palestinians, maybe even with the Syrians, will continue," said Gideon Doron.

Analysts say the true test may come in the next few months, when Israel is expected to hold general elections a year and a half ahead of schedule. At that point, Kadima would face what observers say will be a strong challenge by the right-wing Likud party led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says he will step down as soon as his party elects a new leader. However, he plans to stay on as caretaker to continue the current round of peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

The new Kadima party leader will have a month to form a coalition government.

Tzipi Livni would be the second woman to lead the state of Israel. Golda Meir served as Prime Minister from 1969 and 1974.