Israel's once-popular Mordechai facing choice as election nears

Staying in the race to save new party could hamper bid to unseat Netanyahu

May 13, 1999|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- As the campaign for Israel's prime minister enters its final days, Yitzhak Mordechai is stuck in the middle.

In March, the former defense minister launched his campaign for prime minister with the founding of the Center Party. Once the darling of the conservative Likud coalition, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mordechai was regarded as the most popular politician in Israel.

Today, though, his standing in the prime minister's race has dropped precipitously. Mordechai trails leading contender Ehud Barak and incumbent Netanyahu by more than 25 percentage points.

Mordechai, 54, says he won't quit the race, but four days before the election, the man in the middle seems stuck there.

As Barak, the Labor Party leader campaigning under the banner of One Israel, widens his lead over Netanyahu, speculation grows that a June 1 runoff might be unnecessary. The latest polls show Barak with 43 percent, Netanyahu 35 percent and Mordechai 7 percent. Candidates from minor parties make up the remaining 15 percent. A candidate needs more than 50 percent of the votes Monday to win the election and avoid a runoff.

Some Israeli commentators and Barak supporters want Mordechai to withdraw, endorse Barak and secure a place for himself in a Labor-led government.

Mordechai, a retired Israeli general born in Iraqi Kurdistan, began his quest for the prime minister's job with the sole goal of getting rid of his former boss.

But Alexander Lubotsky, an Israeli lawmaker who dropped out of the Center Party list, said Mordechai's candidacy would ensure a runoff -- at a cost of $125 million -- "with no real need for that."

"A second round would only help Bibi," said Lubotsky, using the nickname for Netanyahu. "So, what's the whole point? Here, the candidacy is understood by the people as an ego issue, as just a question of personal pride."

Menashe Raz, a Center Party spokesman, said Mordechai will not succumb to pressure to pull out. "He's determined to run to the first round," Raz said.

If the new party is to have a future on the fractious political scene, Mordechai has no choice but to stay in the race, some political observers say. Should the Center Party win eight seats in the Israeli parliament, it would have enough votes to be a force in determining the next coalition government. Neither of the two major political parties has won enough votes to govern outright in the country's 51-year history.

"When you are the former most popular politician in the country and currently the politician with the fastest declining support in the country, all that you have is your honor," said Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at Hebrew University. "And he has staked his honor in staying in the race."

Some political commentators say there is no guarantee that Mordechai voters would chose Barak over Netanyahu. Given the choice between Netanyahu, a hard-liner, or Barak, whom they perceive to be on the left, Mordechai supporters would likely return to their Likud roots, the analysts say.

Haim Boutbul, a 49-year-old soccer coach from Jerusalem, is a good example. Boutbul, a Moroccan Jew and Likud member, embraced Mordechai's campaign.

"The Likud is not the Likud it use to be," said Boutbul of the coalition founded in part by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. "The Likud now is the Likud of one man -- Bibi Netanyahu. I moved over to the Center Party because I thought it could bring change."

Boutbul was ordering lunch from a popular falafel stand in a Jerusalem neighborhood considered a Likud stronghold. For weeks, a banner supporting Mordechai hung over Shevach's eatery. Yesterday, it was flapping in the wind.

"If Mordechai quits," said Boutbul, "and goes over for Barak, I'm not going to vote for Barak. I'll put a blank in the box for prime minister. It's not just about the prime ministership. If you want to build a new party, you have to stick with it."

Added counter man Ekekial Sharon: "He promised on TV he wouldn't quit. He can't make a joke of himself. He can't come out of this a liar."

In January, Netanyahu fired his popular defense minister before Mordechai could quit. Mordechai was the third Likud minister to abandon Netanyahu, joining other well-known members who defected, including Finance Minister Dan Meridor and former Tel Aviv Mayor Roni Milo.

Despite the powerhouse of talent, the Center Party leaders have not garnered the popular support needed to defeat Netanyahu, said Shmuel Sandler, a political scientist.

"Most Israeli voters are in the center, but despite the strong centrist vote, no center party has ever done well here," said Sandler of Bar-Illan University near Tel Aviv. "Both major parties turn toward the center. None of the major parties wants to be viewed as extreme.

"They want unity, but nevertheless they [the voters] want a message. If you look at the Center Party," Sandler said, "it has a very impressive group of leaders, but no real message."

At a boisterous rally Tuesday night in Tel Aviv, Mordechai outlined his party's message. He entered the hall to chants of "To the end" -- an appeal to Mordechai to stay in the race. He acknowledged that "every pioneering movement has its difficulties."

But he said, "It's important we clarify our main goals -- to replace this government and the one who heads it. It is essential to get things moving ahead, the things in retreat, the divisions in Israel, the economics, the peace process.

"Only a strong center movement with an ability to change the political map in Israel can change our life today, in the future, in the state of Israel."

Special correspondent Joshua Brilliant contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 5/13/99

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