JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last night fired his defense minister, who promptly criticized his former boss' fitness for office and joined with those seeking to unseat the Israeli leader.
Netanyahu sacked Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai a day after the 54-year-old former army general indicated his reluctance to remain with the prime minister as the Likud leader battles to keep his job.
Netanyahu's dismissal of Mordechai and the defense minister's strong response are the latest developments in the political turmoil troubling Israel in the months leading up to new elections set for May 17.
The firing pre-empted Mordechai's decision on whether he would remain with the government.
Netanyahu informed him of his decision as the defense minister was meeting with the three Israeli leaders seeking to unseat Netanyahu -- former Finance Minister Dan Meridor; Roni Milo, the former mayor of Tel Aviv; and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, the recently retired army chief of staff who announced his candidacy for prime minister Jan. 6.
"Our ways must part," Netanyahu said in a letter to Mordechai, a moderate in his hard-line coalition.
"In the past weeks, I have come to realize that your personal ambition supersedes any other consideration."
Netanyahu accused Mordechai of duplicity for negotiating for a position in a new government under the Likud while talking to opponents who want to oust Netanyahu.
The defense minister has had his differences with Netanyahu. Some public opinion polls have indicated that Mordechai, a proponent of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords, posed a serious threat to Netanyahu's candidacy for re-election.
Mordechai, who was given the influential defense post by Netanyahu shortly after he was elected in 1996, delivered an angry retort to the prime minister.
He accused Netanyahu of "lies, mudslinging and inaccuracies befitting a petty politician."
Mordechai, standing outside his home in suburban Jerusalem, said he had lost confidence in the prime minister and believed Netanyahu didn't deserve the trust of the Israeli people.
"The one thing I demanded of Netanyahu was to maintain the process -- political, security and social ones -- we were leading together. Netanyahu chose to endanger everything we attained for his political needs," Mordechai said, in a statement read to Israeli reporters.
"The Jewish people deserve better leadership than Netanyahu, and I intend, with my friends, to offer a different leadership."
The friends to whom he referred were Meridor, Milo and Shahak, who are intent on forming a new centrist party.
Meridor and Milo are moderates in Netanyahu's Likud party; Shahak is aligned with a more dovish platform.
Given the fractious nature of Israeli politics, it's too early to tell whether a centrist party with Mordechai at its head could defeat the prime minister.
Mordechai denied that he demanded the defense minister's post in a new Netanyahu government.
"I'm motivated by one thing -- how to serve the people and the nation in the right way," said Mordechai.
"Every citizen in Israel can look into my eyes and see if I'm not telling the truth, word for word."
Mordechai is the fifth minister to leave the Cabinet since Netanyahu assumed power in June 1996.
Moshe Katsav, the tourism minister, said Netanyahu could not ignore reports that Mordechai planned to bolt the Likud government and join the prime minister's opponents.
"The crisis of confidence was too big, and the prime minister had no choice," Katsav told Israel Radio.
Netanyahu said he asked Moshe Arens, a Likud veteran, to replace Mordechai as defense minister and received a positive response.
The move was viewed as an attempt to neutralize Arens, who is seeking to challenge Netanyahu as the Likud's candidate for prime minister.
Arens, 73 and Netanyahu's former mentor, opposes Israel's peace accords with the Palestinians and Netanyahu's attempts to carry out the agreements.
Barry Rubin, an Israeli political analyst, said the loss of Mordechai underscores Netanyahu's shaky hold on power.
"If he has to go to Arens, that's really telling because he's so thin in terms of his support base," said Rubin, a scholar at the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Illan University near Tel Aviv.
Pub Date: 1/24/99