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NEWS ANALYSIS Centrists: Rumors of campaign’s demise are greatly exaggerated

JERUSALEM, May 3 (JTA) — The four founders of the Center Party are making it clear they are determined to fight to the end, with Yitzhak Mordechai as their candidate for prime minister. The centrist leaders called a news conference last Sunday to defend their candidate vehemently despite poor showings in the polls and a call by Labor leader Ehud Barak for Mordechai to drop out of the race and support him. Political observers here have been predicting this past week that the centrists were about to merge their into One Israel — Barak’s Labor Party-plus movement — and effectively turn the expected two-round election into a one-round make-or-break drama between Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on May 17. The polls have been unkind to the centrists, showing a steady decline from the early days when Mordechai, in the words of the party’s election slogan, seemed “the only man able to win big against Bibi.” The party’s entire strategy has centered around the fear that Labor, however it dresses itself up with catchy new names like One Israel, is incapable of beating Netanyahu and Likud. This, after all, has been the pattern of Israeli elections — barring Yitzhak Rabin’s victory in 1992 — for the past two decades. After Mordechai was fired by Netanyahu in January and overnight became the leader of the centrists, the polls were upbeat: If he could send Barak into third place in the first round — only the top two runners pass into the second round — Mordechai would beat Netanyahu in the runoff. But since then, Barak has opened an ever-widening gap, making it increasingly unlikely that the Center Party leader can make it into the runoff. Crowning the centrists’ frustrations, Mordechai’s status as the anti-Netanyahu candidate in the second round has evaporated, too. Polls consistently show that Barak would fare better than Mordechai in a two-way fight against Netanyahu. If the trend continues, some insiders say, Mordechai may yet be prevailed upon by his three colleagues — Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, Dan Meridor and Roni Milo – – to quit the race for premier before the first round and pool his party with One Israel in a sort of pre-election coalition against the Likud. Others, however, take Mordechai at his word. The former defense minister insists it would be unthinkable and politically inadvisable, to — as he puts it — “abandon” his supporters at this stage. He says he will fight through the first round, and even if he loses, his followers will remain loyal to him and his party as coalition negotiations begin after that round. It is widely assumed here that Mordechai and his colleagues would, in that scenario, urge their supporters to vote for Barak in the second round — or at least not to vote for Netanyahu. Center Party officials point with bitter irony to the televised debate between Netanyahu and Mordechai in April as the turning point in this election. Since that night, when Mordechai trounced the premier on his home turf — the TV studio — Netanyahu and Likud have been declining in the polls. The beneficiary, however — hence the bitterness — has been Barak, who had declined to take part in that bruising screen battle. As of last weekend, polls were showing an 8 percent gap between Barak and Netanyahu in a runoff — the best the Labor leader has achieved so far. But there are still almost two weeks to go before the first round and, as Mordechai and his colleagues warned, a lot can change in that time. Coincidentally, things may have begun to change just when the centrists were making their pitch to the media last Sunday. Well-known actress and comedian Tikki Dayan, appearing the night before at a pro-Barak gathering of stage artists, had mocked Likud voters as “riff-raff” and spoke of them as “the other nation.” Netanyahu pounced on this gaffe like a puma. Barak had been present at the event and, said Netanyahu, “had laughed along with everyone else. He found it funny.” Barak, belatedly, demanded an apology from the actress — and she duly told the media she regretted the word “riff-raff.” But the damage was done. Many recall that Labor lost the 1981 election after a popular entertainer, Dudu Topaz, referred to Likud supporters using a derogatory epithet for uneducated Sephardim and Menachem Begin, the Likud leader, exploited that mistake. “They haven’t changed,” Netanyahu told a cheering crowd of Likud supporters last Sunday night. “They can call themselves One Israel, but they’re the same condescending elitists,” he said. “I’m proud to be part of the rabble,” Netanyahu added. What is grist for Netanyahu’s mill is manna for the Center Party, too. With a Sephardi — Mordechai was born in Iraq — at the helm, the party is well placed to pick up the support of voters who may now turn their backs on Barak and One Israel. One centrist pundit said anti-Netanyahu voters may yet bless the day that Mordechai rejected the pressures to quit. With more disasters like Dayan’s gaffe, Barak’s candidacy could yet founder — and Mordechai could come back into his own as “the only man able to win big against Bibi.”