Mordechai fades as poll insults go on

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YITZHAK MORDECHAI, the man who once hoped to break the mould of Israeli politics, was still refusing to withdraw from the prime ministerial race yesterday, possibly throwing the election into a second round.

Mr Mordechai, a Kurdish Jew from northern Iraq, resigned as defence minister earlier in the year denouncing Benjamin Netanyahu, thePrime Minister, and joined the opposition Centre Party. He presented himself as the one man who could defeat Mr Netanyahu, but his support has dived in the past month.

His candidacy remains important because the votes he gets may prevent Ehud Barak, the Labour leader, winning the election outright with more than half the votes on 17 May. Mr Netanyahu hopes for a run-off on 1 June when Israeli Arabs, supporters of Mr Barak, may not vote en masse.

By now it is almost a daily ritual for the leaders of the Centre Party to announce: "There is is no change. Mordechai is still in the race for prime minister." This is accompanied by a pledge that the decision is final. Defying other party leaders, Mr Mordechai says he will run whatever happens.

The Centre Party is a curious phenomenon in Israeli politics. It was set up four months ago on the simple platform of getting rid of Mr Netanyahu as Prime Minister. It offered Mr Mordechai, a well-respected Sephardi (Jew from the Middle East) general, as the man whom the polls showed was the candidate best equipped to replace him.

His candidacy flared briefly, but then Mr Barak's campaign began to forge ahead. Polls show Mr Mordechai securing 6 per cent of the vote.

By staying in the race he is the one hope of Mr Netanyahu staying in office. If he does finally drop out then Azmi Bishara, the Israeli-Arab candidate, and Benny Begin, from the far right, are likely to follow suit.

Mr Netanyahu expresses doubts about the accuracy of the polls and says the media is biased against him.

Both points have some truth in them. Pollsters in Israel are often baffled by closed communities such as the ultra- orthodox who lie as to their voting intentions. Israeli journalists, members of the secular elite the prime minister likes to denounce, are almost uniformly hostile to him.

The media coverage reflects the vitriolic nature of the campaign. The attorney general is examining the remarks of Professor Haim Gordon of Ben-Gurion University, who referred to the Prime Minister as "scum" and expressed the hope that Ariel Sharon, the Foreign Minister, would die of a heart attack. When Mr Netanyahu accused the professor of calling for Mr Sharon's murder, Professor Gordon said the Prime Minister was "a liar".

Likud, Mr Netanyahu's party, does not deny the omens are poor. A senior official said: "The collapse isn't stopping. If this trend continues Barak will be prime minister next week." Ehud Olmert, the mayor of Jerusalem, and Limor Livnat, the Communications Minister, are positioning themselves to oust Mr Netanyahu as party leader if he loses the election.

Lebanon, where seven people were killed yesterday, is playing no role in the campaign. A member of the South Lebanon Army, the Israeli- organised militia in the Israeli occupation zone, was killed with three of his family by a roadside bomb yesterday. Israeli radio says that two members of Hizbollah, the militant Islamic Lebanese guerrillas, and a civilian were killed in separate incidents.

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem yesterday, Israelis celebrated the 32nd anniversary of the unification of the city in the Six Day War.