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World - Middle East

Mordechai bolts to new Israeli centrist party

Israel prime minister sacks defense minister in leadership struggle
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Fired defense minister likely to challenge Netanyahu

In this story:

January 24, 1999
Web posted at: 6:57 p.m. EST (2357 GMT)

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Four former leaders of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party will join in a new centrist opposition party, which will probably be led by Yitzhak Mordechai, the defense minister fired by Netanyahu on Saturday.

Mordechai announced that the as-yet-unnamed centrist party would hold a news conference Monday to lay out a platform for the May 17 national election.

"A new leadership is needed -- a certain, trustworthy leadership ... not a provocative one that is still looking for its path," he told supporters Sunday in Tel Aviv.

The three other prominent players in the new coalition are former army chief Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, former finance minister Dan Meridor and former Tel Aviv Mayor Roni Milo.

Just whom the party will run against Netanyahu for prime minister hasn't been disclosed, and Lipkin-Shahak has already announced his intention to run. But Mordechai hinted Sunday that he would be the likely choice for the party's top slot.

"I am very happy that I took all the risks for the big chance," he said.

A poll Sunday in the Jerusalem Post found that either Lipkin-Shahak or Mordechai would outpoll Netanyahu.

Netanyahu: Firing Mordechai 'thing I needed to do'

On Saturday, Netanyahu sacked Mordechai, one of the most popular members of his Cabinet, because of Mordechai's ongoing negotiations with Lipkin-Shahak and the other centrists.

"He organized a conspiracy to topple the government in which he was serving," Netanyahu told Israel Radio on Sunday.

Asked later on Channel One television if he believed firing Mordechai could hurt his chances of winning re-election, the prime minister said, "If it did damage or it did not do damage, this is the thing I needed to do."

Mordechai makes barbed reference to 'lying lips'

After attending his last Cabinet meeting, Mordechai went to Jerusalem's Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site and a traditional first stop for candidates. After prayers, he offered up Psalm 120 as a final barbed statement to his former boss.

"Deliver me, O Lord, from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue," he said. "Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace. I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war."

Yitzhak Mordechai file

Born: 1944 in Iraq

Arrived in Israel: 1949

Education: Graduated from the Staff and Command Colleges in Israel and in Cambridge, England; bachelor's degree in history from Tel Aviv University; master's degree in political science from Haifa University

Military career: Commander of paratroopers in the Sinai during the 1967 Six-Day War and on the Suez Canal front during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when he was awarded the Medal of Valor; commander of Southern Command from 1986-89, Central Command from 1989-91 and Northern Command from 1991-95; retired with rank of major general in October 1995

Political career: Minister of defense, June 1996-January 1999

Mordechai has long been seen as a moderate in a Likud Cabinet of hard-liners when it comes to negotiations with the Palestinians. He supports the peace process and favors going ahead with implementation of the Wye River accords reached between the two sides last October.

Netanyahu suspended implementation of the accords in December, accusing the Palestinians of non-compliance. On Sunday, Mordechai accused the prime minister of caving in to extremists and choosing "a path that has no exit."

Mordechai appeal crosses ethnic boundaries

Mordechai, born in Iraqi Kurdistan, would be the first candidate for prime minister representing Israel's Sephardic Jewish majority with roots in Middle Eastern or North African countries.

He is seen by many as a candidate whose appeal crosses ethnic boundaries in Israeli politics. His Middle Eastern roots make him attractive to Jews of that background, while his army record and his moderate views help him overcome prejudices among Jews of European parentage.

"At long last there comes a man who just might be able to break the tribalism between east and west, between left and right," wrote a columnist in the mass-circulation Maariv daily.

The leader of the opposition Labor party, Ehud Barak, said he would be "glad" to have Mordechai alongside him in government.

"He risked his life many times for the sake of the security of Israel and Israelis," said Barak, a former general. "He does not deserve this way of humiliation and sacking by the television."

Reuters contributed to this report.

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