By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel's main opposition Kadima party, expected to suffer a crushing defeat in the next election, has voted out its leader Tzipi Livni and chosen ex-defense chief Shaul Mofaz to replace her.
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 program 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.
In his victory speech, Mofaz, 63, pledged to "lead a new social order" to fight for the nation's poor, seek a renewal of moribund Middle East diplomacy and "campaign for Israel's image and its future".
Some Kadima members hope Mofaz may revitalize their once ruling party. It was founded in 2005 by former prime minister Ariel Sharon when he bolted from the Likud after former allies rallied against him over the Gaza pullout he had championed.
But it was Livni's fall that dominated the primaries' post-mortem in the Israeli media.
Kadima won more parliamentary seats than the Likud in the 2009 election but Livni failed to forge deals with potential coalition members -- partnerships that often involve state funding for their pet projects.
Instead, Netanyahu put together a coalition and Livni chose not to take Kadima into the alliance of mainly right-wing and religious parties. Political commentators said that by opting out, Livni alienated party members who had hoped for government jobs.
"Her decision to remain in the opposition was ideological, moral and important for Israeli democracy," columnist Ben Caspit wrote in the Maariv newspaper on Wednesday.
"But along with it, Livni should have known how to hold onto her people, feed the hungry mouths, assemble a cohesive group, give support, and create an agenda. She failed on all these matters."
(Additional reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan)