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Candidate who wants Olmert's job once 'sought deaths of 70 Palestinians a day'

A leading candidate to be Israel's next premier called for a death toll of 70 Palestinians a day when he was head of the military during the second intifada, according to a best-selling book by two Israeli journalists.

The account of a briefing given in May 2001 to senior West Bank army commanders reinforces the image of hawkishness enjoyed by Shaul Mofaz. He has emerged as the main rival to the Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, for the leadership of the Kadima party being vacated by Ehud Olmert. Mr Mofaz is expected to stress his security credentials as a former chief of staff and defence minister in his campaign to defeat Ms Livni, the most popular among the Israeli public of the candidates to succeed Mr Olmert as party leader.

According to the book Boomerang, by Ofer Shelah, of Yedhiot Ahronot, and Raviv Drucker, of Channel Ten, Mr Mofaz convened a meeting of brigade and regimental commanders covering the occupied West Bank at Jerusalem's Ammunition Hill. It occurred early in the premiership of Ariel Sharon when the intifada was well under way.

The book, which was well reviewed, and was based on extensive interviews with officials and documentary research, chiefly made news when it was published in 2005 because of its contention that Mr Sharon had, in large part, dismantled the Jewish settlements in Gaza to deflect the threat of a corruption indictment.

The two prominent journalists say in the book that the chief of staff at one stage of the Jerusalem meeting – "in an exceptional act" – ordered the person customarily responsible for recording the pronouncements of the military's top officer on such occasions to stop doing so. The general then warned, says the book, without placing his remarks in direct quotes, that there would be "no more messages to the Palestinian Authority so that it will act". The authors say that Mr Mofaz instead laid down that they call "a price to be set exactly". The authors say that he said he wanted "10 slain Palestinians" in each territorial brigade area.

The book goes on to record that one senior officer then whispered to the Central Command commander, Yitzhak Eitan, that he would be well advised to ask for such an order in writing and added: "It comes to 70 killed a day".

It then says that General Eitan convened the same group of officers the following day and "made clear that what Mofaz said [was] not to be understood as an order and should not be treated as a directive for action."

But it adds that one officer, the brigade commander in the Hebron area, Colonel Yehuda Albek, "preferred the Mofaz version" to that of General Eitan. The next day, he began an action near Dahariya against Palestinian police "who had not committed any hostile acts". A policeman was killed and several wounded. When the colonel was summoned to command HQ to explain the operation to his concerned superiors, he said that it was in line with the remarks made earlier by the chief of staff, says the book.

There was no immediate response from Mr Mofaz's office yesterday to inquiries about the book's account.

Meanwhile, Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud, called for an immediate election, which the polls show he would win. "It doesn't make any difference who heads Kadima. They are all party to a string of failures by this government," he said. Mr Netanyahu could get his way if the victor of the Kadima leadership contest fails to form a workable coalition to stay in office. In that case elections could be called for early next year – with the possibility that Mr Olmert could remain as caretaker prime minister until then.