A day after winning the leadership of Israel's ruling party, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was set to begin consolidating her power in the faction Friday by meeting her defeated rivals, reported dpa.
However, her main rival Shaul Mofaz, who she defeated by only 1.1 per cent, or 431 votes, canceled his meeting with the new Kadima leader, after dramatically announcing Thursday night he was taking a timeout from politics.
"The time has come for me to take a break," Mofaz told his campaign headquarters in Givatayim, a suburb east of Tel Aviv, Thursday night.
"I want to consider my future and different ways that I can contribute to Israeli society, to the state and to my family. I am not requesting a position or rank in the government or the Knesset. I will remain a Kadima member and do everything in my power for the party."
The announcement stunned both his supporters and Livni, whose aides said they tried to reach Mofaz and persuade him to reconsider. Mofaz however declined to meet with Livni.
"I was surprised to say the least. All the activists were surprised. All the friends were surprised. All the closest people were surprised," Kadima legislator Ronit Tirosh, a close supporter of Mofaz, told Israel Radio Friday.
"He just closed himself inside with his family, wrote what he wrote, and in the evening he dropped the bomb," she said.
Mofaz, 60, a former army chief of staff and defence minister and a comparative hawk within the centrist party of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, currently serves as transport minister. He is also in charge of "strategic dialogue with the US," meaning he is Israel's representative in talks coordinating responses to Iran's nuclear programme.
Government sources told Israel Radio Friday a replacement would have to appointed to that crucial post. Because of his narrow loss, speculation had also been rife that Livni would give him a senior post such as the foreign ministry.
Livni was announced the winner of the Kadima primary Thursday, after official results showed her obtaining 41.3 per cent of the vote, against 40 per cent for Mofaz. The other two candidates, Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit and Public Security Minister Avi Dichter won 8.5 and 6.5 per cent of the vote respectively.
Olmert intends to resign by early October over accusations of corruption, allowing Livni to try and form a new government. If she fails, early elections are likely to be held by March 2009.