Ousted minister turns to Scripture; Israeli centrist departs Cabinet with psalm for Netanyahu


JERUSALEM -- Ousted Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, at his last Cabinet meeting, invoked powerful biblical images yesterday to upbraid Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and elucidate the reasons to unseat him in the spring elections.

Mordechai, a political moderate who was fired Saturday as he prepared to abandon Netanyahu's hard-line government for a new centrist movement, chose his verses carefully. The former Army general's aim was clear: to pointedly distinguish himself from the hawkish, Likud prime minister who appointed him to his first political post.

By relying on a holy text rather than political rhetoric, Mordechai strove for the moral high ground. But the decision also was a tactical one -- by invoking Scripture he appealed to the religious, who make up a significant element of Netanyahu's voter base.

After the start of yesterday's Cabinet meeting, Mordechai asked to make a statement. Donning a knitted skullcap, he read from the Book of Psalms, Chapter 120.

"Deliver my soul, oh Lord, from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue. What shall be given to you and what more shall be done to you, you deceitful tongue," he read. "Too long have I lived among those who hate peace. I am a man of peace; but when I speak, they are for war."

In reciting the psalm, Mordechai deftly highlighted two key issues of the campaign leading to the May 17 election: character and the stalled peace process. They are two issues on which Mordechai and his partners in the centrist movement -- Likud members Dan Meridor, Roni Milo and retired Army chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak -- can distinguish themselves from Netanyahu and his coalition partners.

The group has not selected its candidate for prime minister. But the 54-year-old Mordechai is the most popular of the four. A poll yesterday in the Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Ahronoth found that a centrist party led by Mordechai would win nearly a third of Israelis who voted for Netanyahu in 1996.

Described as "a good man with a heart" and a "bulldog" when he makes up his mind, Mordechai is remembered for his service to his country and commitment to the less fortunate.

"He really has a sense of mission, service of the country. This is his theme in life, whether as a young paratrooper or a defense minister," said Uri Dromi, a former Labor government spokesman who served in the Army under Mordechai. "This guy is really connected to the people and he's a threat to Netanyahu."

"He is not a politician at all," said Reuven Rivlin, a Likud member of Israel's parliament who described the former defense minister as a hero of Israel. "But he found himself suddenly at the field of politics and he was very much a success, not because he understands the material but because he was beloved."

One of seven children born in the Kurdish province in the north of Iraq, Mordechai represents the majority of Israel's Jews, those from Arab countries. The Sephardim, as they are known, immigrated to Israel in the 1950s and have long chafed under the rule of the Ashkenazi Jews of Europe, who founded the country.

They are among the country's most disenfranchised citizens and have struggled to increase their earning power and their place in the corridors of power.

Mordechai, who grew up in the Galilee city of Tiberias, was a career military man -- another asset in a security-conscious country.

He won the country's Medal of Valor during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. He rose through the ranks, fought in Lebanon, and was the only general to serve as head of the army's three geographic sectors.

Accusations that Mordechai was responsible for the 1984 execution of two Palestinian terrorists threatened to end his military career. But the allegations proved false.

Mordechai quit the Israel Defense Forces in 1995 when then-army chief of staff Lipkin-Shahak -- Mordechai's partner now in the centrist movement -- chose another to be his deputy. Mordechai entered politics after the 1995 assassination of former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

His support of the Middle East peace process put him squarely in the Labor camp, but there were no guarantees that Mordechai would hold a Cabinet post if Labor won in 1996. The Likud, however, embraced him. He campaigned hard for Netanyahu. After Netanyahu's slim victory, Mordechai was named defense minister.

Although he has had his troubles with Netanyahu, he publicly backed the prime minister. But he said yesterday he could no longer remain silent. Netanyahu, however, accused him of abandoning the government because of his political ambitions.

Yesterday, after the Cabinet meeting, Mordechai suggested Netanyahu read yet another biblical passage: Samuel 1: 15. At one point in the verse, Samuel says to King Saul: "The Lord has torn the Kingdom of Israel from you this day, and has given it to a neighbor who is better than you."

Pub Date: 1/25/99

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