JERUSALEM, Jan. 25 (JTA) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come out swinging against his former defense minister, but behind the premier’s confident veneer lurks a fear that Yitzhak Mordechai will be a formidable opponent in the race for prime minister. Netanyahu knows there were two voting blocs that led to his victory in the 1996 elections over former Prime Minister Shimon Peres: the Sephardi and Orthodox communities. Netanyahu also knows that he needs these voters if he hopes to win the May vote. Enter Mordechai, who is heading a newly formed centrist party after he was fired by Netanyahu over the weekend. Born to Kurdish Jewish parents in Iraq, the religiously traditional Mordechai is the first candidate for prime minister in this year’s crowded election field who seriously threatens to win over these twin sources of Netanyahu support. The threat is more likely, as centrist officials have suggested, because disenchanted Likud voters can more easily switch their allegiance to a centrist than to a Labor Party candidate — particulary given the long history of antipathy for Labor among the large Moroccan community and other traditionally pro-Likud sectors in Israeli society. When it came to describing Mordechai and the other centrist party leaders, Netanyahu did not spare the vitriol this week, calling them a “bunch of losers motivated by nothing but personal ambition.” The description, part of a bare-knuckled exchange of insults between Netanyahu and Mordechai in the wake of the firing, is important because it exposes two problems confronting Netanyahu: * He called them losers, but opinion polls show he would lose to their candidate should a runoff vote be necessary. * He called them ambitious, but events proved otherwise this week, when the leaders of the centrist group — Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, former army chief of staff; Dan Meridor, former Likud finance minister; and Roni Milo, former mayor of Tel Aviv — set aside their individual prime ministerial ambitions to let Mordechai lead their quest to bring Netanyahu down. Netanyahu, who was expected to be re-elected leader of his party in a nationwide Likud primary Monday against challenger Moshe Arens, insists that he will win despite the setbacks and defections dogging his campaign. “The people are with us, regardless of the media,” the premier said Monday. “The people want a strong leader, a leader who decides — and acts.” Despite his assured stance, Netanyahu can hardly brush off the vow Mordechai made this week: “I will do anything and everything I can to bring Netanyahu down.” This vow, in fact, is what unites all the top officials in the still-unnamed centrist party. Three of the centrists — Mordechai, Meridor and Milo — are prominent former Likud figures who know Netanyahu intimately and served under his leadership before bolting the party. The fourth, Shahak, was chief of staff for much of Netanyahu’s two-and-a-half years in office. The centrists now need to hammer out a credible platform that will be more than a set of platitudes midway between the positions of Labor and Likud. But beyond the polished phrases that they and their professional advisers are certain to come up with, one message will prevail: Netanyahu is not fit to be prime minister. This was Mordechai’s refrain during the past week. For his part, Shahak, when he recently announced his entry into politics, had a slightly different version, calling Netanyahu a “danger to the nation.” This message can also be expected to be delivered by another former Netanyahu minister, Ze’ev “Benny” Begin, head of the new Herut Party now forming on the far right of the political spectrum. Begin’s hard-line views may not have a huge backing among traditional Likud backers. But his personal integrity is — and his campaign will add firepower to the attacks that Mordechai and his colleagues plan to launch on the prime minister from the center. Netanyahu acted with decisiveness when he announced live on television Saturday night that he was firing Mordechai after it became clear that the defense minister had decided to defect to the centrists. The premier accused Mordechai of holding simultaneous negotiations with Likud and the centrists in order to secure his political future. But Netanyahu appeared worried as he watched Mordechai in action at his last Cabinet meeting Sunday. The ousted defense minister brought a Bible with him and donning a yarmulka, he read a verse from the Book of Psalms to deliver his message that Netanyahu is a liar and an enemy of peace. “Deliver my soul, O Lord, from lying lips and a deceitful tongue,” the ex- general intoned, citing Psalm 120. “My soul hath long dwelt with him that hateth peace. I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war.” With reporters in tow, Mordechai next went to the Western Wall, where, again putting on a yarmulka, he read the same verses. He then went to the home of Sephardi sage Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to receive an on-camera blessing from the man who can sway tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of voters. But despite Netanyahu’s formidable opposition, political observers repeatedly caution, Netanyahu should not be counted out too quickly. The two-round election system may well help Netanyahu beat back the multiparty attack on his personality and record. If no candidate garners more than 50 percent of the vote and a runoff election is held, it seems clear that Netanyahu would prefer a showdown with Labor leader Ehud Barak than face off against the man who, more than any other Likud politician, helped him win power in 1996. Mordechai, then recently retired from the army, was enormously popular among the Likud rank-and-file and among the broader electorate. Given the crowded field in the center and the right, Barak could come in ahead of Mordechai in the first round of voting on May 17. But in a head-on fight with Netanyahu in a June runoff, Barak could see his earlier win go up in flames — even if Mordechai called on his supporters to vote for Barak. This scenario, certainly a bleak one for the anti-Netanyahu forces, seems at this point in the campaign to be Netanyahu’s most hopeful one.
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