Mild-mannered 'butcher' who rose by being simply too dull to make enemies

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The Independent Online

Grey men and women are rare in the exotic hothouse of Israeli politics, but Moshe Katzav, the country's new President, is one of them.

Grey men and women are rare in the exotic hothouse of Israeli politics, but Moshe Katzav, the country's new President, is one of them.

There are no highlights in his 23-year parliamentary career to come close to the record of the rugged old political warrior upon whom he inflicted an astonishing defeat, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former prime minister Shimon Peres.

Chief among the reasons for Mr Katzav's victory is that he is a Sephardi Jew. The Sephardim - from North Africa and the Middle East - form the bulk of Israel's underprivileged class, and have long resented the dominance of the Ashkenazi (European) elite. Crucially, they form the core support of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, whose 17 votes played a large part in allowing Mr Katzav to snatch victory from a confident Mr Peres.

Mr Katzav was born in Iran in 1945, moving to Israel at the age of six where he spent part of his childhood in an immigrants' transit camp before moving to a troubled new town. Israel has had a Sephardic president before - Yitzak Navon, who held the post from 1978 to 1983 - and there are a clutch of Sephardis in high places. But few have had such modest backgrounds.

His political career began when he was elected mayor of Kiryat Malachi, an unappealing town 20 miles north of the Gaza Strip, at the age of 24. This isthe only splash of colour in his curriculum vitae. The rest - economist, educator, military service as a lowly corporal in communications - is without the glamour or controversy of the 76-year-old Mr Peres.

Mr Peres' career is part of the fabric of Israel's 52-year history. He was a Jewish guerrilla fighter, a leading figure in Israel's nuclear programme, twice prime minister, signatory of the 1993 Oslo accord, Labour stalwart, five times election-loser, and more besides.

By contrast, Mr Katsav, 55, is a minnow. In 1977, he was elected to the Knesset for the right-wing Likud party, rising to become a senior figure. He held a number of second-rank cabinet posts - transport, tourism, labour and social welfare - and was a deputy prime minister in the Netanyahu government.

His name translates as "butcher", but his reputation is of a mild-mannered man who has avoided making enemies. He is also an observant Jew, which will have helped win ultra-Orthodox support, despite Mr Peres's good ties with Shas.

The post of president in Israel is largely ceremonial. But Mr Katzav's triumph, winning 63-57 in a Knesset secret ballot, will go down in history - as a triumph for Sephardis, and as another bad defeat for Mr Barak and his peace plans. It will be remembered, too, as the moment that the curtain fell on Shimon Peres' 41-year career in politics.