Tzipi Livni has been ousted as leader of the centrist Kadima party, the biggest Israeli opposition group, losing to her rival in a bitterly contested primary that is likely to cut short the career of one of the country’s best-known politicians.

Ms Livni, a high-profile foreign minister in the previous government, won only 38 per cent of the vote. Shaul Mofaz, a former army chief-of-staff and ex-defence minister, received the backing of 62 per cent of party members in a nationwide ballot that closed late on Tuesday.

Analysts were surprised at the margin of defeat for Ms Livni, which led many to predict that she would now leave Kadima – and possibly even Israeli politics – altogether. “How and when she will go – it is too soon to assess. But she will go. The Livni era has ended,” wrote Sima Kadmon in the Yedioth Ahronoth daily.

In an effort to steady the party after an acrimonious primary campaign, Mr Mofaz called on Ms Livni and her supporters to stay loyal to Kadima. “Tzipi, your place is with us,” he said.

The Iranian-born former career soldier also took aim at Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister: “I intend to win the general elections and bring ‏Netanyahu down. Our country deserves a new social agenda … and more serious attempts to achieve peace in our region,” he said.

Ms Livni led Kadima to an incomplete victory at the last election in 2009, when the party captured more parliamentary seats than any other political group. However, she was unable to muster enough support from other parties to form a governing coalition, allowing Mr Netanyahu and his Likud party to head the government instead.

According to her critics, Ms Livni has been a lacklustre and ineffective opposition leader. They point to the steady drop in support both for Kadima and Ms Livni herself. Opinion polls show that the party would today struggle to achieve even half the 28 seats it captured in 2009.

But Ms Livni, a longstanding advocate of peace talks with the Palestinians, also became a victim of broader political trends: polls show that Israeli voters are today gripped above all by concern over Iran’s nuclear programme, at the expense of issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Analysts say the new focus on Iran is good for Mr Netanyahu, who has long argued for a tough line against Tehran. “Netanyahu is doing a fantastic job in keeping the Iranian issue on the agenda. As long as the Iranian issue is on top of the agenda, Kadima and the left do not exist,” said Tamir Sheafer, a professor of political sciences at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

“They will get stronger only if the Palestinian issue or socioeconomic issues come back on the agenda,” he added.

Opinion polls suggest that Kadima could fare even worse under Mr Mofaz than under Ms Livni. A survey published last week by Dahaf, an Israeli polling group, showed the party winning just 12 seats under Mr Mofaz, compared with 15 under Ms Livni.

The Likud party of Mr Netanyahu, in contrast, is forecast to win 29 seats under any scenario – more than any other group.

Kadima was founded by Ariel Sharon, the former prime minister, as a breakaway party from the Likud in 2005. It served at first as a political vehicle for Mr Sharon’s plan to pull Israeli settlers and forces out of the Gaza Strip, but soon emerged as a dominant new force in Israeli politics – before fading once again. “It is no longer the big, central party that it was when Sharon led Kadima,” said Prof Sheafer.

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