Minister of Compassion
Yitzhak Mordechai, Israel's defense minister, delicately discusses peace, his boss and the conversion bill during a recent L.A. visit
By Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor
Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai is arguably the most popular politician in Israel, and during a recent four-day visit to Los Angeles, he proved that his common touch might work equally well abroad.
For instance, during an inspection tour of the aerospace company TRW, where he was received like the conquering general he has been most of his life, Mordechai noticed three office workers handing out the company's souvenir coffee mugs, emblazoned with the Israeli and American flags.
Mordechai turned from the escorting dignitaries, walked over to thank the office employees and, lifting his empty mug, toasted them with a hearty "L'Chaim."
His thoughtfulness extended even to so humble a petitioner as a local reporter. Finishing up an interview, the stocky minister handed the reporter a nicely wrapped box that contained a handsome ballpoint pen, bearing the seal of the state of Israel.
Only rarely did his natural courtesy require a gentle nudge. As a television crew was packing up its equipment after an interview, Mordechai's media adviser whispered a few words, and his boss asked the crew's indulgence to add one more important remark.
When the camera was ready, Mordechai said, "I want to thank all the Jewish people for what they have done for Israel."
Mordechai was born in Iraq 53 years ago and came to Israel at age 5. He served 33 years in the Israeli army, mainly as a combat officer, and rose to the rank of major general.
He joined Binyamin Netanyahu's campaign shortly before last year's election -- after briefly flirting with the Labor Party -- and is given considerable credit for the Likud victory, thanks to his mobilizing support across the electoral spectrum, particularly among Sephardic voters.
Only a few weeks ago, posters sprouted mysteriously in some parts of Israel, proclaiming "Mordechai for Prime Minister." In a recent magazine article, he is described as "compassionate... and a classic example of the American leadership model: reliable, trustworthy, cares about people like you and me, with vision and clear goals."
During his tightly programmed and heavily guarded stay in Los Angeles, Mordechai met, in closed events, with the leaderships of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles and AIPAC's local branch, talked with the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times, had lunch with California Gov. Pete Wilson, and even exchanged views with actors Richard Dreyfuss, a Peace Now stalwart, and Ed Asner, a mainstay of Hollywood's liberal wing.
The encounter with some 40 Federation leaders was a bit of a learning experience for Mordechai. After addressing the group on Israel's military situation and the status of peace talks, Mordechai took questions.
It quickly became obvious that his audience wanted him to take back a message conveying their profound concern about the conversion bill now pending in the Knesset. The bill would officially deny recognition to conversions performed in Israel by Reform and Conservative rabbis.
"I don't think Mordechai realized the extent of the chasm that is opening up between Israel and American Jewry on the question of religious pluralism," said Dr. Gerald Bubis, a member of the Federation's executive committee and a longtime activist in Americans for Peace Now and a past national co-chair.
Judging by the mood at the meeting and similar exchanges elsewhere, Israeli Consul General Yoram Ben Ze'ev noted that he hadn't seen the Jewish community leadership so agitated since the "Who Is a Jew?" controversy of a decade ago.
"It is no longer a theological, but a political, issue," said Ben Ze'ev.
Later, in a private interview, Mordechai addressed the subject with some anguish.
"I know that many Jews are worried," he said, "but we must find a clever formula that will lead to a common understanding.
"Many times in our history, we have had misunderstandings that divided the Jewish community. We have to be united."
Asked whether, realistically, such a formula could be found, he replied, seemingly with more hope than conviction, "I think there can be a formula; I hope there will be a formula."
Mordechai was at pains to scotch any speculation that he might be available for the top government post, should Netanyahu stumble.
"Mr. Netanyahu is an excellent prime minister, young, with high education and motivation," he said. "He has another seven to eight years to be the leader of the Israeli government.
"I have a high responsibility now, and I am giving it all in my power. I will be full of happiness if we do not put Israel into war and succeed in achieving peace."
The highlight of Mordechai's visit was the elaborate inspection tour at TRW of the world's first laser-based air-defense system, which is being developed jointly by the United States and Israel.
The project, known as THEL/ACTD, for Tactical High Energy Laser/Advanced Concept Technology Demonstrator, is specifically designed as a state-of-the-art defense against the short-range Katyusha rockets that threaten northern Israel.
Somewhat to the surprise of his circumspect hosts, Mordechai predicted that the THEL system will be operational and in place in Israel by late next year or early 1999.
While TRW managers and technicians explained the complex technology of the system, Mordechai again showed his human touch.
"On behalf of the children of Israel" who are exposed to Katyushas in the settlements adjoining the Lebanese border, Mordechai thanked the TRW staff for "helping to defeat terrorism."
He said that he would pass on a scale model and an artist's rendering of the THEL system, presented to him, to a school in Kiryat Shemona, the community that has suffered the most from the rocket attacks.