Netanyahu, Fired Rival Start Israel Race Swinging

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Israel's political picture was brought a little more into focus Monday, at least for the moment, as two of the main candidates for prime minister firmed up their positions and came out swinging.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the incumbent, easily won a primary within his Likud Party and formally emerged as its candidate for prime minister, television projections indicated. In so doing, the embattled leader, whose government fell Dec. 21, managed to put down a challenge from his former mentor, veteran Likud politician Moshe Arens.

And Yitzhak Mordechai capped a dizzying 48 hours that began with his very public dismissal as defense minister. He ended Monday night with his coronation as an aspiring prime minister representing a new centrist political party.

Mordechai and Netanyahu wasted little time in trading the acrimonious charges that already are commonplace as a very divided Israel heads to national elections May 17.

Flanked by three prominent Israelis--two Likud deserters and a retired army chief of staff--who have engineered the creation of the new, unnamed party, Mordechai said Netanyahu's government could not be trusted to make peace with the Palestinians. He called for diverse segments of Israeli society to come together to support a unifying government.

Mordechai and the three men sitting with him, all dressed in camera-friendly blue shirts, issued a party platform full of vague, middle-of-the-road positions. Retired army Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who also had been touted as a challenger to Netanyahu, said they agreed that Mordechai had the widest appeal and would make the best candidate, able to bridge Israel's "social and political gaps."

"Our purpose is to get rid of Bibi," said another of Mordechai's associates, former Tel Aviv Mayor Roni Milo, using Netanyahu's nickname.

Milo, formerly of Likud, accused the prime minister of running his party to the ground and betraying the "spirit of Jabotinsky," a reference to early right-wing Zionist militant Zeev Jabotinsky, who fought for the creation of an Israeli state.

Netanyahu countered by dismissing the centrist party as an irrelevant and transitory mishmash lacking convictions. The real race pits Netanyahu and the right against Labor Party leader Ehud Barak and the left, the prime minister said.

Although Mordechai can cut into Likud's traditional support because of his Sephardic Jewish and modest immigrant background, polls published Monday showed him running behind Netanyahu and Barak in a three-way race, meaning he would not reach a likely runoff. In a head-to-head contest with Netanyahu, however, he would win big, the polls indicated.

Mordechai used his waning hours as defense minister to tour Israel's contentious border with Lebanon and bid farewell to officers and troops. There, he dropped a bomblet by revealing the existence of secret negotiations with an unspecified partner involving Israel's 20-year-old occupation of southern Lebanon.

"Some sort of negotiations are being conducted," Mordechai said. "I cannot give details. I hope there will be some results."

Netanyahu later confirmed that Israel has been holding quiet talks "for a long time under my guidance," and added that "it is better not to talk about this, less even at election time." His aides lashed out at Mordechai for revealing the talks.

Israeli radio indicated that the negotiations did not involve Syria, the main power broker in Lebanon, but did include France and the Lebanese government and may focus on a trial withdrawal from the Jezzine enclave, a small sector of the Israeli-occupied strip of southern Lebanon.

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