Livni is seen as the frontrunner to replace Olmert in the Kadima party [AFP]
Israel's most powerful woman, Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister, is among the top contenders to replace Ehud Olmert as leader of the centrist Kadima party and prime minister of the Jewish state.
The most powerful woman in Israel since Golda Meir, Israel's prime minister in the 1970s, Livni enjoys a great deal of respect internationally as well as popularity at home.
She has brushed off the frequent comparisons with Meir, telling a local newspaper: "I am not Golda Meir the second, but Tzipi Livni the first, and I will lead Israel in the coming period."
Livni appears to have stayed clear of the scandals that have dogged other Israeli ministers and has escaped domestic recrimination over Israel's 2006 war against Hezbollah.
In May last year, after a scathing report into the 34-day conflict, she called on Olmert to resign and said she would seek to take over as leader of the Kadima party.
Although polls show her leading the race ahead of Wednesday's centrist Kadima party leadership vote, she faces competition from Shaul Mofaz, the transport minister and former chief of the Israeli army, who has stressed his security credentials.
Born in Tel Aviv on July 8, 1958, Livni is Israel's second woman foreign minister - the post was also held by Meir - and has been Israel's chief negotiator in peace talks with the Palestinians.
She has met frequently with her Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, and senior Palestinian diplomat Ahmed Qorei to discuss core issues in the decades-old conflict in the hopes of concluding a full peace agreement by January 2009.
However Livni has remained tight-lipped about the latest round of peace talks, insisting that they take place away from the media spotlight.
|Livni, right, has been heavily involved in the peace process [AFP]
Livni comes from a well-known "ultranationalist" family, but has endorsed withdrawal from some occupied Palestinian lands as a pragmatic way to preserve Israel's Jewish majority - if not to achieve a peace agreement.
First elected to the Knesset as a member of the Likud party in 1999, her father, Eitan, led the armed underground group Irgun in the 1940s, which fought for an exclusively Jewish homeland in Palestine and opposed partitioning the territory with Arabs.
Livni renounced any such views after defecting from Likud and joining Olmert and Ariel Sharon, then prime minister, in forming Kadima in 2005 with the idea of unilateral withdrawal from parts of the occupied territories.
"I came to the painful realisation that if I have to choose between a Greater Israel and Israel continuing to be a Jewish and democratic country, I must choose the latter," Livni said.
She was a key member of the team which oversaw Israel's disengagement from Gaza.
Much of Livni's political career is seen as being a result of her relationship with Sharon, under whom she served as justice minister.
She came to politics just over a decade ago, following a stint in the Mossad foreign intelligence service - as a legal adviser, some say, while others speculate that she helped hunt Arab enemies abroad.
|Livni joined Kadima with Olmert when it was formed in 2005 [EPA]
She also had a career as a lawyer specialising in commercial, constitutional, and real estate law.
At times outspoken, she once called Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, "irrelevant".
Her critics suggest that, as prime minister, she would have to work hard to make up for matters of state and military experience where she lacks expertise.
Olmert's successor as Kadima party leader would not automatically take over as Israel's prime minister.
He or she would first have to forge a coalition government, a challenge that could prove time-consuming and complicated because of bitter divisions within parliament.
Livni, married with two children, is guarded about her private life.