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Ex-Mossad agent favourite to be first female leader of Israel since Golda Meir

It was just before the rowdy climax of her meeting with party activists packed into a stifling eighth-floor office on a hot and humid night here that Tzipi Livni displayed her political steel.

Having infiltrated the meeting, the national students' leader, Netanel Izak, had grabbed the microphone to ask why she had not responded to his letter seeking her support against higher student fees.

Ms Livni first gave the student a brisk dressing down. "I absolve you from supporting me," she said to a laugh from her loyalists. "But if you try to push me into a corner, you won't get an answer. If you're polite, you will." Israel's Foreign Minister then explained that a solution for higher education funding was the subject of government consultations, but that yes, she did support a rise in tuition fees.

Her intervention was not enough to stop a shouting match between the students and her supporters which ended in the arrival of the police. But it was a pointed indication to the party activists that she is not prepared to make random concessions to every interest group that demands them in order to achieve her goal of being the first woman prime minister of Israel since Golda Meir.

As such it symbolised the break with the old wheeler-dealing tradition of Israeli politics that her campaign purports to mark. That could affect the kind of governing coalition she seeks to build if she wins the leadership of the governing party, Kadima, after 70,000 registered members choose a successor to Ehud Olmert on Wednesday. And that in turn could determine Israel's stances over the coming year on major issues of peace or war: Iran, Syria, and the Palestinians.

Like Hillary Clinton, Ms Livni is seeking to break through the glass ceiling of male-dominated politics. A decade younger than Mrs Clinton, she also favours "pants suits" – though certainly not of the orange variety; in Haifa she wore a demure black one.

And while she remains well ahead in the polls, her activists cannot discount the possibility of a victory for the well-oiled political machine of her only serious opponent, the former chief of staff, Defence Minister, and scourge of the Palestinian intifada, Shaul Mofaz. According to some reports, Mr Mofaz has a much bigger network than Ms Livni of "vote brokers" who have freshly – and dubiously – recruited hundreds of new members for the contest. But unlike Mrs Clinton she keeps her family – a husband in advertising and two sons – wholly out of the public eye. She is projecting herself as the fresh face of a new national politics. Speaker after speaker at the Haifa meeting, stressing her "Mrs Clean" image, untainted by the kind of corruption allegations that have brought Mr Olmert to the brink of an indictment, echoed her own assertion that the wider electorate are "willing to vote for me to restore their trust in politics".

Certainly the polls suggest she is easily Kadima's best hope of confronting a powerful electoral challenge from Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud. "It's Netanyahu or Livni," the local Kadima chairman Itzik Regev told the meeting. "There are no other options."

As a populist security hawk – not least on Iran, on which he has gone further than other Israeli politicians in threatening a military attack – Mr Mofaz has indicated that while he would talk to the Palestinians it would no longer be about the "final status" of a two-state solution. And he has been heavily critical of any plan to divide Jerusalem – a minimum requirement for such an agreement.

Ms Livni is no leftist. A former Mossad agent with family roots in right-wing Zionism, she has her own "red lines" – against even a token admission of Palestinian refugees to Israel, for example. She has been openly critical of Mr Olmert's decision to open talks with Syria without Damascus first "ending its support for terror".

But she says that Israel should be ready to give back territory while adding it must be "by consensus and it must bring an end to the conflict". And she is heavily committed to – and personally embroiled in – the problem-strewn talks with President Abbas's team on the outlines of a future two-state solution.

Ms Livni has said she would not pay "any price" to build the coalition that whoever wins the leadership will need to prevent early elections. That might just rule out the ultra-orthodox Shas, which continually seeks higher child allowances for the large families that make up its support base, and which is strongly opposed to a serious offer to the Palestinians. Mr Mofaz has hinted he will woo not only Shas but the hard-right Yisrael Beiteinu party led by Avigdor Lieberman.

For Mr Mofaz's supporters in Haifa – the biggest Israeli city, with a mixed population of Jews and Arabs – his military record means a welcome return to Israel's tradition of being run by generals after the debacle of a Lebanon war led by the civilian Mr Olmert saw Katyusha rockets raining down here in 2006. "We are living in the Middle East, not Switzerland," says a Jewish Kadima activist, Mira Peleg, 42, who has a son in the army. "We cannot afford another experiment. We should cut the bullshit and think of Israel." Even Mr Mofaz's less bellicose supporters argue his military record is an advantage. "He has seen his friends dying in battle, he knows what war is and so he will want peace," insists another supporter, an Arab lawyer Anan Zubran, 45. Even a man who reportedly called early in the second intifada for a death toll of 70 Palestinians a day? "[Yitzhak] Rabin was a general too, and in the first intifada he talked about breaking the bones of Palestinians. But he did more for peace than any other leader of Israel."

For Arab opponents of Mr Mofaz the comparison with Rabin is frankly incredible. "Ms Livni has clean hands and she can make peace with the Palestinians and the Arab states," says Ashoul Munir, a businessman. "She is a woman and that means a change." As a Jew who has made the same ideological journey from the hard right to the centre as Ms Livni, Itzik Regev points out that she was a favoured protégé of Ariel Sharon.

But he adds: "It is a very good chance for the nation of Israel to take a woman, a young woman, as its leader who is not a general and who may be the one who will avoid the war, rather than the one who will win the war."

The rise of Tzipi Livni

*Born: Tzipora Malka Livni on 8 July 1958 in Tel Aviv

*Youth: Her parents were leading members of Etzel, a radical Zionist organisation. Her views led her to join Mossad in her early 20s. Left after two years to become a lawyer and start a family.

*Family: Married to Naftali Spitzer, two sons, Omri and Yuval

*Career: Elected to the Knesset in 1999 as a member of Likud, and was appointed to a series of ministerial posts. Her views softened into a more centrist position and she began to advocate a two-state solution. Followed Ariel Sharon into new Kadima party in 2005; Foreign Minister since 2006.

*In her own words:

"I am good at persuading people. In convincing the other, I try to start from their point of view, so it's easier for me to find a common denominator."

"I prefer jeans to a suit, sneakers to high heels, markets to malls. [In Paris] I prefer the Quartier Latin to the Champs-Elysees. In general, I don't like formality at all. It is just part of what I do. You know, when I was young, I went to the Sinai and worked as a waitress."

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