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Netanyahu Sacks Minister Likely to Be Election Rival

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu late Saturday fired his popular and politically ambitious defense minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, who was already on the verge of launching a challenge to the ruling party.

Mordechai, who for days had vacillated on whether to leave Netanyahu, reacted angrily to what he saw as an unceremonious dumping. He lashed out at the prime minister and essentially declared his own candidacy for office with a new centrist party.

Mordechai emerges as a formidable rival to the beleaguered prime minister. He is the most high-profile among a string of politicians who have split from Netanyahu and his ruling Likud Party during a bitterly contentious election season. The coalition government fell last month and was forced to call early elections for parliament and the premiership.

Netanyahu and his associates sought to downplay the damage that losing Mordechai will cause, pointing to polling that shows him taking no more than 1% of the vote.

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Yet Mordechai’s departure is clearly a blow. Analysts say Mordechai, considered a moderate voice in Netanyahu’s conservative government, could play a pivotal role in the elections set for May 17.

He has a loyal following among Israelis who see him as a man of integrity. His military background appeals to the Israeli yearning for security, and his ethnic background--he was born in Iraqi Kurdistan--appeals to the large community of Middle Eastern and Sephardic Jews who resent the domination of Israeli politics by Ashkenazi, or European, Jews. They are traditional Likud supporters who may be tempted to follow Mordechai to another political faction.

Netanyahu said he will appoint veteran Likud politician Moshe Arens, 73, to the defense portfolio. Arens, Netanyahu’s onetime mentor, is mounting his own challenge to Netanyahu by running against him for chairmanship of the party in an internal vote set for Monday.

Arens, who served as defense minister in a previous Likud government, said he will consider the offer after Monday’s vote.

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Netanyahu informed Mordechai of his dismissal in a letter that he read on national television, accusing the defense minister of blind personal ambition.

“You conducted negotiations with opposition figures whose aim is to topple the Likud government,” Netanyahu wrote Mordechai. “He who betrays the principles of the voters who elected him is neither worthy of belonging in our ranks nor fit to be in our leadership.”

Mordechai countered, stepping from his home, where he was meeting with three key opposition leaders, into a driving rain and the glare of television cameras. The retired general said Netanyahu’s letter was full of “lies and slander.”

“I regret having to say that the prime minister is no longer worthy of my personal trust nor, I suppose, the trust of the Israeli people,” Mordechai said. “Israel deserves a better leadership.”

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