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On The Road With Joe Biden

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Israel's governing party has a new leader today. The woman who may become Israel's next prime minister is named Tzipi Livni, although President Bush prefers to call her Tzipi. She's a political moderate, and she was Israel's lead negotiator in peace talks with the Palestinians. Let's talk about her more with Mark MacKinnon, the Middle East correspondent for the Toronto Globe and Mail. Welcome to the program.

MARK MACKINNON: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Who is she?

MACKINNON: Well, Tzipi Livni is as you've said a moderate, at least within her Kadima party. She was the foreign minister, of course, for the last few years and lead negotiator with the Palestinians. Nine years ago, she was the head of a state company and put there by her now rival Benjamin Netanyahu. And she barely squeaked into the Knesset, the parliament here, in her first try. She's sort of become the fresh new face.

INSKEEP: Well, what does it mean that this party - and we should mention, this is not a nationwide election, right, it's a party contest - what does it mean that the Kadima party chose her?

MACKINNON: Very important to point out that this is an election that was by the 74,000 Kadima members, barely half of whom voted. The fact that they chose her probably means that more than anything else, that they were looking at the opinion polls. If they had chosen any of her rivals, I think the Kadima Party, the party that was founded by Ariel Sharon three years ago, would have found itself in very difficult times when the election came up.

So while she had a lot of - she made a lot of enemies in the party because she effectively had been in the opposition to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for the last, more than the last year, anyhow. But the polls kept saying that Kadima with Livni leading it has a chance to if not win the next election, for it to be very competitive in the next election. Had they chosen her closest rival, Shaul Mofaz, I think they would have found themselves on the outside looking in after the next vote.

INSKEEP: Well, let's take a second to just take stock of the situation here. You've got this political party that was founded by Sharon that was all about finding some sort of middle way forward for Israel, which had gotten trapped by some people's estimates. Then you had a situation where the party was captured by corruption scandals. Where is this centrist party going now?

MACKINNON: Again, with Tzipi Livni it's - they hope it's a return to the root. They're trying to, sort of, put this corruption era behind them and hope that this is a fresh start. They can return to the idea of the centrist Israeli party, this new direction that will - if it can't make peace with the Palestinians, it will impose a unilateral peace. So the idea that Tzipi Livni represents is returning to what Ariel Sharon had set out to do in the first place before he was felled by a stroke.

INSKEEP: Is she someone who could restart the peace process in the Middle East?

MACKINNON: Restart might not be the right word for it. She's certainly the person who will carry the Annapolis peace process, the one that George Bush launched a year ago, to the end. A lot of Israelis and most of the Palestinians have given up on this peace process. But she's the one who's been in the room every day. She's the lead Israeli negotiator, as we mentioned. And so she knows precisely where the process is at, and she believes in this process, which makes her a rarity in the Israeli political stage right now.

INSKEEP: Well, now, wait a minute, if she believes in it but Israelis at large don't, isn't that irrelevant what she believes? She can't bring her country with her?

MACKINNON: Well, that's the question, is that, you know, especially having only been selected by half of a small party membership, whether or not she can deliver the Israeli public behind a peace deal is very much in question.

INSKEEP: Mark MacKinnon is the Middle East correspondent for the Toronto Globe and Mail. He's in Tel Aviv. Thanks very much.

MACKINNON: Thanks, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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