Shaul Mofaz was elected the new head of Kadima, the biggest party in the Knesset, Tuesday, defeating the incumbent Tzipi Livni by a crushing margin. Final results showed Mofaz taking 61.7 percent of the vote to Livni’s 37.2% in the centrist party’s leadership primary.

Speaking to supporters at party headquarters in Petah Tikva, Mofaz said, “This evening, Kadima has won.” He added, directing his comments to Livni, “Tzipi, your place is with us.”

Noting that Kadima was the largest party in parliament, he vowed to lead it back to government, and to heal Israel’s social rifts.

“We come out of this evening united,” Mofaz said to a cheering but unruly audience. “Three years of Netanyahu have diverted us from doing the right thing, but together we will return Israel to the right path,” he added.

He also told supporters that there is no military security without social security, and that Israel is a country of equal opportunity for everyone.

In the end, 41 percent of eligible Kadima party members cast their ballot on Tuesday, with 24,000 votes going to Mofaz.

Livni told reporters just after 1 AM that she had called Mofaz to congratulate him on his victory and to wish him success.

Asked whether she would stay in Kadima, Livni responded, “I’m not answering any questions. Friends, it has been a long couple of months and a long day today. I am going to sleep.”

Associates of Livni said after midnight that she would take a few days to consider her future after the humiliating defeat. She had earlier issued a statement thanking her supporters, and defending what she called her “principled” approach to politics — which saw her pass up the chance to become prime minister four years ago, when she spurned a deal with Shas. Some colleagues said privately they could not envisage her serving as Mofaz’s deputy.

Mofaz’s media adviser, Lior Horev, said that while victory was sweet, “the real battle begins tomorrow — to oust (prime minister) Benjamin Netanyahu.” He said he saw “no reason” why Mofaz and Livni could not work together.

MK Avi Douan, a Mofaz loyalist, said he also hoped Livni would stay in Kadima. He ruled out the notion of a Mofaz-led party now contemplating joining Netanyahu’s coalition. “That’s not in the program,” he said.

Born in Iran, Mofaz, 63, became the IDF’s chief of staff in 1998. Four years later, then-prime minister Sharon appointed him defense minister. From May 2006 until April 2009, under Ehud Olmert, he served as deputy prime minister and transportation and road safety.

The leadership rivals — both former Likud politicians — fought a bitter and personal campaign, in which Livni depicted Mofaz as an empty populist, and Mofaz portrayed Livni as ineffectual and aloof. Their in-fighting has been a factor in Kadima’s relentless decline in popularity since the 2009 elections; it may hold the most seats in the current Knesset, but polls suggest it would do well to come in third or fourth were general elections held today.

Tellingly, Education Minister Gideon Saar, from the ruling Likud party, was one of the first to congratulate Mofaz on the victory. Likud leaders have watched the race with a certain wry amusement, seeing a party, whose leaders broke away from the Likud under Ariel Sharon, tearing itself apart. The Likud, under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is polling at close to 40 seats in recent surveys, prompting speculation that Netanyahu might call early general elections later this year. Netanyahu, it is widely believed, is no admirer of Livni’s, and the feeling is mutual.

“If Livni doesn’t win, she’s going home. She’s not going to stay on as Mofaz’s number two,” Professor Shmuel Sandler, a specialist on electoral politics from Bar-Ilan University, had predicted earlier this week. “She could quit politics, and wait on the sidelines until they call her back, or she could form a new party. But I don’t think she has the inner strength to do that,” Sandler added.

In the last Kadima primaries in 2008, Livni won over Mofaz by a razor-thin majority of 231 votes. Livni noted Tuesday morning that the vote was a re-run of the 2008 party leadership contest and sounded bitter about being forced into another such race. She said Mofaz constantly highlighted his democratic credentials, but that the vote was only being held because he had refused to come to terms with the democratic vote four years ago in which he failed to oust her.

Mofaz promised “a new path forward” for Kadima after Tuesday. His wife Orit told Israel Radio the contest had “descended into inappropriate areas” — an apparent reference to Livni’s criticisms of Mofaz’s ostensible populist tendencies.

Kadima’s 28 MKs were more or less evenly split between the two candidates, leaving wide open the future of the party that former prime minister Sharon founded in 2005. Livni had repeatedly ducked questions ahead of Tuesday’s vote about what she would do if Mofaz took over the party’s leadership.

One hour before the polls closed at 22:00 p.m., only 38.2 percent of Kadima members had cast their vote. Some 95,000 Kadima party members were eligible to vote in nearly 200 polling stations in 104 localities.

Mofaz’s victory may well spell the end of Livni’s political career. Just a few years ago, she was poised to become Israel’s second woman prime minister.

In 2006, she became prime minister Ehud Olmert’s foreign minister — presiding over intense negotiations with the Palestinians — and stayed in the position until the general elections in 2009. In the meantime, she had taken over the leadership of Kadima from Olmert, but failed to build a stable government after his 2008 resignation over corruption charges.

Kadima’s coalition partners had tried to use the shakeup in the party at the time to achieve new concessions. “If Livni wants a government, she needs to comply with our demands,” Shas chairman Eli Yishai announced.

But Livni preferred new elections over paying what she considered too heavy a price for the premiership. “When it became clear that everyone and every party was exploiting the opportunity to make demands that were economically and diplomatically illegitimate, I decided to call off [talks] and go to elections,” she said.

But her hope that the public would reward her for such integrity, and leave her better able to build a coalition after the elections, went unrealized.

Kadima remained the strongest party after the vote in 2009, with its 28 seats, but the margin between it and the second-place party, the revived Likud, had narrowed immensely. The Likud won 27 seats and it had a wider choice of natural coalition partners, putting it in the driving seat as coalition talks began.

Livni entered the opposition and let Netanyahu form a government without Kadima, a principled step for which some outside observers praised her, although others argued that she and Netanyahu had deprived Israel of a more consensual unity government that could have marginalized special interest parties and formulated compromise policies on matters of land and religion. In her party, many never forgave her for, again, passing up the chance to govern.

After Tuesday’s drastic defeat to Mofaz, she may have lost that chance for good.