The final count on Wednesday of a leadership ballot gave Mofaz 61.7 percent of the vote to Livni’s 37.2 percent. The upset was a rare flash of drama in an unusually placid political scene dominated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition, which has shown few of the cracks that have brought down past multi-party governments.
Livni, a former foreign minister and peace negotiator, was widely expected to announce her retirement from politics.
Her quest for the premiership in an election in 2009 after Ehud Olmert resigned as prime minister and Kadima leader in a corruption scandal, had invited comparisons to another Israeli woman leader, the late Golda Meir.
“I called Shaul Mofaz and wished him good luck. These are the results,” Livni, flashing a flustered smile, said in a rushed statement at her Tel Aviv headquarters.
Opinion polls have shown Kadima on course to lose more than half of its 28 seats in Israel’s 120-member parliament in the next election due next year.
But pundits, citing the Iranian-born Mofaz’s security credentials, give him more of a fighting chance than Livni in battling to unseat Netanyahu, whose tough talk on Iran’s nuclear programme has raised international concern of possible Israeli military action.
“I wish Mr. Mofaz long years as opposition chairman,” said Ofir Akunis, a Likud legislator, quickly taking aim at the new challenger and describing Kadima as “a party that has lost the public’s trust.”
Mofaz, who immigrated from Iran as a child, was the armed forces’ chief of staff from 1998 to 2002 before serving as defense minister from 2002 to 2006. Those periods included a Palestinian uprising and an Israeli pullout from Gaza.
From the opposition benches, Mofaz proposed a peace plan in 2009 that called for the establishment of a Palestinian state with temporary borders followed by talks on permanent frontiers.
He suggested at the time that Israel annex major Jewish settlement blocs in the occupied West Bank under a peace deal but said some isolated settlements would have to be evacuated.