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Monday, January 25, 1999 Published at 16:21 GMT

World: Middle East

Mordechai takes on Netanyahu

Meridor, Mordechai, Shahak, Milo: Attractive to both left and right, they hope

Ousted Israeli defence minister Yitzhak Mordechai has declared he can beat Binyamin Netanyahu in the country's general election in May.

Middle East
Formally announcing his defection from Likud to a new centrist party, Mr Mordechai told a news conference he was determined to bring about a change in government.

Mr Mordechai made his statement minutes after his dismissal from the cabinet by Mr Netanyahu formally came into effect.

Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, a former army chief-of-staff, will be Mr Mordechai's second-in-command in the currently unnamed party.

They are joined by former finance minister Dan Meridor and former Tel Aviv mayor Roni Milo, both defectors from Likud.

Attacking Mr Netanyahu's administration, he accused the prime minister of being incapable of leading Israel towards a permanent peace settlement with the Palestinians.

He also pledged to attempt to revive long-stalled negotiations with Syria over the occupied Golan Heights.

"When I talk about compromise, I mean renewing the dialogue with Syria, while maintaining our security and national interests on the Golan," he said.

"I also mean a territorial compromise while standing firm on Israel's security needs and national interests and through this to achieve a dialogue on Lebanon and change the situation in Lebanon."

Arens challenge

[ image: Arens disowned Netanyahu but is unlikely to win]
Arens disowned Netanyahu but is unlikely to win
At the same time that Mr Mordechai announced he was leading the new party, Mr Netanyahu faced a fresh leadership challenge from the man once considered the prime minister's mentor, former defence minister Moshe Arens.

Voting is taking place among the 170,000 Likud members in polling centres around the country with polls closing at 2000 GMT.

The winner, announced on Tuesday, will be adopted as the party's direct vote candidate for the general election.

Moshe Arens, 73, launched the prime minister's political career when he appointed the young Netanyahu as his deputy at Israel's embassy in Washington in 1984.

He retired from politics in 1992, but came back this month to announce he would challenge his former protégé.

Arens implicitly criticised Netanyahu for allowing infighting to break out in the party, and for handing back land to the Palestinians.

In turn, Mr Netanyahu criticised Mr Arens for 'fleeing' after the Likud defeat of 1992.

All to play for

The centrist group hopes to attract secular-minded Likud members disenchanted with the religious right, which has yielded considerable influence in Mr Netanyahu's failed coalition.

Correspondents say Mr Mordechai adds considerable weight to the group's electoral chances.

Early opinion polls show that Mr Mordechai would come third in a multi-candidate election for prime minister - the Labour leader, Ehud Barak, just beating Mr Netanyahu for first place.

However, in a possible run-off with the prime minister, polls show Mordechai would beat Netanyahu by a bigger margin than Barak.

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