JERUSALEM, Feb. 1 (JTA) — “Let us walk the path of Maimonides,” Yitzhak Mordechai urged a throng of cheering followers. “Let us walk the center path.” The leader of the new, as-yet unnamed centrist party has wasted little time getting into the thick of campaigning — and in the process he has already begun clothing the often nebulous centrist stance with meaning. This has been particularly true in the area of religious-secular relations, where the former defense minister has not hesitated to state his views. “I would like, no less than anyone else, to see yeshiva students serving in the army,” the much-decorated former general told an audience Sunday night, bringing up a long-debated topic. “But there is no way for the one camp to forcibly foist its views on the other,” he added. “The Orthodox cannot threaten the secular, and the secular cannot impose themselves on the Orthodox. The yeshiva boys should serve — but through dialogue, not through threats.” Mordechai’s stance on religion-state issues is being closely watched by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also courting the Orthodox vote. The Labor candidate for prime minister, Ehud Barak, all but gave up Orthodox support with his strongly worded statements last year favoring a draft for yeshiva students. In the 1996 election, Netanyahu took virtually all of the Orthodox vote in his race against former Prime Minister Shimon Peres. But the latest polls indicate that the Orthodox electorate is making a serious defection from the prime minister in favor of Mordechai. Mordechai’s appeal to Orthodox voters became clear last week, following his controversial vote in the Knesset in favor of legislation requiring all members of local religious councils to abide by the rulings of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. The bill, introduced by Orthodox legislators, was intended to prevent Conservative and Reform representatives from serving on the councils — or, failing that, to force them into a blanket acceptance of Orthodox authority on matters under discussion at council meetings. The bill was passed into law by one vote. Mordechai, vigorously back-slapping legislators from the fervently Orthodox Shas Party and the United Torah Judaism bloc after the dramatic vote was taken, insisted that it was his vote that made the difference. Prior to the vote, Mordechai had been lobbied by the Shas leader, Aryeh Deri, who made it abundantly clear that a yes vote would put the centrist candidate in a very good position with Shas supporters and other traditional voters. Mordechai knew what was at stake. He knew the bill was hotly contested by secularist legislators and by the Reform and Conservative movements in the United States. Indeed, a fellow member of the centrist party’s leadership, former Tel Aviv Mayor Roni Milo, issued a statement after the vote deploring the outcome in the name of liberalism and pluralism. The next day, moreover, another centrist leader, former army chief Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, found himself bitterly criticized by liberal-leaning Jewish activists in New York from whom he was seeking moral and financial support for the newly formed party. Just the same, there has been no wavering and no backtracking on Mordechai’s part. Milo is “not nearly as extreme as it sometimes seems,” Mordechai assured an interviewer over the weekend when asked about Milo’s outspokenly anti-Orthodox statements when he first raised the centrist banner several months ago. Milo, Shahak and former Finance Minister Dan Meridor have all declared their candidacies for prime minister and leader of the centrist party in recent weeks. All three have now deferred to Mordechai’s candidacy, pooling their campaign staffs and other resources to form one unified party. Reporters have repeatedly asked Mordechai about his meeting last week, on the day after he was fired as Netanyahu’s defense minister, with Shas spiritual mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Interviewers and the general public have been particularly intrigued by television footage of the burly ex-general kissing the sage’s beard. “That’s me,” Mordechai replies with disarming simplicity. “It’s not an act or a show like with other politicians. “These are parts of my personality, of my lifestyle.” It is much too early to know whether these personal traits — his traditionalist beliefs and customs, and his salt-of-the-earth ways — are a key cause of Mordechai’s impressive showing in the polls. The polls indicate that Netanyahu will win the first round of voting on May 17 – – but with far less than the 50 percent needed to avoid a June 1 runoff. Mordechai, meanwhile, emerged in two weekend polls as handily defeating Netanyahu in a two-way runoff. And Mordechai’s party — which is still without a list of legislative candidates or platform — won 15 of the 120 Knesset seats in the weekend surveys. With Likud and Labor getting just 27 and 26 seats, respectively, in those same polls, the centrists would appear to be making an impressive debut. Just the same, Mordechai says he expects to win 20 or more seats at the ballot box. He also says he is confident of making it to the runoff. But the question remains as to whether he can beat Barak in the first round and thereby square off against Netanyahu on June 1. This question, still a matter of speculation at this early stage of the campaign, could well become the focal issue of the entire election. If polls continue to show Mordechai as the favorite in the runoff, his supporters are certain to pressure Barak to abandon the race prior to May 17 in favor of their man. Meanwhile, Mordechai reacts with angry contempt to assertions that his Sephardi birth gives him an edge with many voters. This, he says, is a slur on them as well as on him. He prefers instead to project what he terms his authentic “Israeliness” — a supra-ethnic quality that embraces his down-to-earth personality and his religious heritage. This, he maintains, is the essence of his centrism and reflects the main credo of the new movement — unity and an easing of the multiple tensions tearing at the fabric of Israeli society.