JERUSALEM (Jan. 25)
Yitzhak Mordechai is well known for grabbing a microphone and spontaneously belting out Sephardi tunes on talk shows, but he has never let loose publicly like he did after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed him Saturday night as defense minister.
Mordechai accused Netanyahu of allowing the government to be held hostage by a small group of extremists, while compromising Israel’s security by damaging relations with the Palestinians, Jordan, Egypt and the United States. It was a damning account from a man who, as defense minister, was responsible for Israel’s security.
For many months, the popular, burly former general kept his discontent with Netanyahu’s policies and governing style relatively private, preferring to try to influence the government from within. Now, after officially joining the new centrist party to challenge Netanyahu for the premiership, he will try to convince Israelis that he can steer the country best in the driver’s seat.
Vowing to move Israel toward a permanent settlement with the Palestinians, he also has strong ideas about Syria and Lebanon. In announcing his candidacy at a news conference Monday night, he told reporters, "When I talk about compromise, I mean renewing the dialogue with Syria, while maintaining our security and national interest on the Golan." He also advocated changing "the situation in Lebanon," where Israel maintains a 9-mile-wide security zone.
Mordechai was born in 1944 in Iraq to a Kurdish Jewish family. Five years later, the family immigrated to Israel and was housed in a transit camp until settling in Tiberias.
In 1962 he was drafted into the army, and initially was rejected from the paratroopers unit. Admitted to this elite unit only after he became an officer, he was awarded the prestigious medal of valor for his part in a famous battle during the Yom Kippur War of 1973.
Mordechai believes his Sephardi background was a liability to winning military positions. Yet he was determined to continue up the ladder.
As chief infantry officer in April 1984, Mordechai found himself embroiled in one of the country’s most notorious public scandals. Agents of the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security agency, tried to frame him for killing two Palestinians captured after they hijacked a bus. Mordechai was later exonerated.
Mordechai, who has a masters degree in political science, held several senior military posts between 1986 and 1995, but left the army after being passed over for the top position, chief of staff. Soon after his discharge, he joined Likud, was overwhelmingly voted to the top slot below Netanyahu on the Likud Party list and became defense minister in 1996 — a post that allowed him to appoint the chief of staff.
But Mordechai’s first steps in politics were not without criticism. Before joining Likud, he also negotiated with the Labor Party, a move that left him open to charges of being unprincipled, an image Netanyahu exploited last week when he accused Mordechai of being an opportunist and negotiating with other parties behind his back.
After joining Likud, Mordechai insisted he was true to the party’s ideals. But he also described himself as a "pragmatic ideologue."
"I do not believe in extreme, one-directional, inflexible strategies," he said last year in an interview with the Jerusalem Post. "Life is more complicated than some people would like to believe. I don’t want anyone to change their ideology, but we’re living in a certain reality. There’s a Palestinian population living out there, and you want to go live in Nablus?"
Mordechai was often left out of important decisions made by the Inner Security Cabinet. Nevertheless, Mordechai, who speaks some Arabic, was seen by outsiders as a moderating influence within the government. He, more than any other minister in the Netanyahu government, forged warm relations with Palestinian, Egyptian and Jordanian leaders.
Indeed, Mordechai was the only Israeli minister to remain in contact with Palestinian officials after Netanyahu froze implementation of the Wye accord last month.
Mordechai has also developed close ties with several senior U.S. officials, even during tense times between the administration and the Netanyahu government. President Clinton sent Mordechai — but no other Israeli official – – a letter of thanks for his role in the Wye accord in Washington signed last October.
Back home, Mordechai is not popular among settlers because he has frequently vetoed plans for new West Bank settlements and roads.
However, according to an opinion poll published Monday in the Ma’ariv newspaper, Mordechai would defeat Netanyahu by a 12-point margin if the two face off in the second round of elections, that are scheduled to take place if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round.
Political analysts say Mordechai will appeal to a broad spectrum of voters. As the first Sephardi ever to contend for the premiership, he may attract many Sephardi Likud voters and supporters of Shas, the fervently Orthodox Sephardi party.
In responding to Netanyahu’s dismissal, Mordechai referred the prime minister to biblical verses, and then paid a visit to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual mentor of Shas.
Unlike other secular politicians, whose gestures to Sephardim are often seen as manipulative rather than genuine, Mordechai, a traditional Jew, is indeed seen as one of their own. The influential Yosef even officiated at Mordechai’s much- publicized second marriage in 1997 to Kochi Shimshi, a 26-year-old law student.
Holding one of the poles of the chupah at the wedding was Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, the former army chief of staff who has withdrawn his own bid for the premiership to play a supporting role as best man in Mordechai’s campaign to be prime minister.