A popular force for Israel's new party

Yitzhak Mordechai, fired as defense minister Saturday, isserious contender for prime minister.

Israel is in a state of political metamorphosis: Ideologies are in flux, old parties are crumbling, and new ones are forming. Yitzhak Mordechai, the just-fired defense minister who has catapulted into the spotlight as the leader of Israel's new centrist party, may be the candidate who can best take advantage of this time of uncertainty.

Mr. Mordechai has a rare combination of attributes: He is known as a political moderate and has a pedigree that includes membership in the country's elite circle of army generals as well as the nation's underprivileged majority.

In the two days since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired him, Mordechai has raised the possibility that he could fight the premier on his own turf. Mordechai is emerging as a candidate who may be equally nimble in oratory, better able to appeal to key religious and ethnic sectors of the electorate, and more popular with regional leaders fed up with Netanyahu's obdurate approach to the peace process with the Palestinians.

Mr. Mordechai is Israel's first serious contender for prime minister of Middle Eastern origin, and the most "traditional" in religious practice of any of the three leading candidates for premier - a position that has always been held by a secular Jew.

After two years of tension between Mr. Netanyahu and Mordechai, the prime minister fired Mordechai from his post as defense minister Saturday night.

Placing a skullcap on his head, Mordechai read from Psalms during his last Cabinet meeting. "Deliver my soul, O Lord, from lying lips, and from a deceitful tongue.... My soul hath long dwelt with him that hateth peace. I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war."

The Israeli press remarked on the importance of his donning a kippa for the unusual reading, saying it showed a special degree of respect for the Scriptures that did not seem artificial because Mordechai is known to attend synagogue on holidays.

But Netanyahu dismissed the Bible reading as a "good show" and shot back: "Don't lecture me about truth and lies."

On Sunday, Mordechai prayed at the Western Wall - Judaism's holiest site - and then went to the home of a powerful Jewish spiritual leader to receive his blessing.

Religion and ethnicity always play an important role in Israeli elections, but Mordechai's move to emphasize his traditional side is an important gambit for the new centrist party. The party's actual founder, former Tel Aviv Mayor Roni Milo, is seen by Orthodox Jews to be antireligious because he had led the battle to keep businesses open on the Sabbath.

Mordechai's background could cut deeply into Netanyahu's electoral base in the right-wing Likud Party, which draws heavily on conservative, working-class voters who are also migrs from the Islamic world.

Born in 1944 in Iraqi Kurdistan, Mordechai moved to Israel with his family at age 6 and grew up in the town of Tiberius, on the Sea of Galilee. His identification with Jews who originated in Muslim countries before Israel's establishment in 1948 makes him a rarity among senior officials: He represents those known alternately as Sephardim - Hebrew for Spanish, because many lived in Spain before the Inquisition - or Mizrachim, simply meaning "Eastern."

Since they were traditionally discriminated against by European Jews who founded the state, Sephardim have shied away from voting for the left-wing Labor Party. It is associated with the Socialist ideas of the early Zionists and still run by people Sephardim see as members of the established elite.

More than half of Israeli voters are of Sephardic origin, and only about 20 percent of the Israeli public is considered Orthodox. Mordechai would have to gain the support of many in both of these groups in order to make it into a runoff race set for June 1.

A poll in Yediot Ahronot, Israel's largest daily paper, found that one-third of past Netanyahu voters are already leaning toward voting for the centrist party headed by Mordechai.

Others in the region seem to be inclined toward him as well. In the 2-1/2 years since he became defense minister, Egyptian, Palestinian, and Jordanian leaders have come to know Arabic-speaking Mordechai as a moderate who was trying to prod Netanyahu to uphold the Oslo Peace Accords.

American officials have said in background discussions that of all the ministers in Netanyahu's Cabinet, Mordechai was one of the few who understood Arab thinking and seemed to have a keener ability to communicate with his Palestinian counterparts in negotiations.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has refused to see Netanyahu for over a year, but had invited Mordechai for a visit. The two were set to meet on Sunday in the Sinai Peninsula, but the meeting was canceled owing to events surrounding Mordechai's candidacy.

Jordan's King Hussein has apparently also invited Mordechai, even though he turned down a request for a visit by Netanyahu for the time being.

Some Israelis say this amounts to meddling that could backfire. There are still many voters who think that what the Arabs like couldn't be good for the Jews. Some predict that such favoritism for Mordechai could help Netanyahu.

"I think the interference in Israeli politics will be in favor of Netanyahu," says Gideon Ezra, parliament member from the Likud Party, "because people in Israel don't like involvement in their politics by outside people."

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