Israeli minister joins race to replace Olmert

Shaul Mofaz, Israel's Iranian-born deputy premier, launched a campaign on Tuesday to succeed scandal-struck Ehud Olmert as prime minister with a vow to put the country's security at the top of his agenda, Reuters reported.

Mofaz, 59, who, if elected, would become the country's first prime minister not born in Europe or in territory now Israel, announced he would be running in a September 17 leadership contest being held by the ruling Kadima party.

Opinion polls show Mofaz trailing closely behind Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Israel's top peace negotiator with the Palestinians, though some party loyalists feel Mofaz's military past could tip the contest in his favor.

Mofaz, who declared in June that attacking Iran to stop its nuclear program may be "unavoidable", avoided the subject in his brief address to a cheering Jerusalem crowd, but said "security must always be at the top of our (Israel's) agenda".

"There is nothing I want more than peace," he said, but made no mention of US-backed peace talks with the Palestinians or indirect talks under way between Israel and Syria.

Israel would seek "a true peace that ensures Israeli security", Mofaz added, invoking a pledge often used by Israeli rightists that implies they would resist compromise.

"It is convenient at times to delude ourselves temporarily, especially in relatively quiet times, that security issues are not urgent or our main concern. I say this is a dangerous delusion," added Mofaz.

Olmert, under police investigation for suspected bribe taking and filing duplicate travel expenses in a former government job, touched off political turmoil last week by vowing to step down once his party chooses a new leader.

Olmert has denied any wrongdoing.

The winner of the Kadima leadership contest would not automatically become prime minister, unless he or she can muster a parliamentary majority, a process that could take months and leave Olmert in charge as interim prime minister.

Analysts say either Livni or Mofaz may fail to form a new government, and this could trigger an early national election. The next election is now expected in 2010.

Mofaz said "the last thing Israel needs" is an early election, and he would seek to forge a unity coalition with right and left-leaning parties, if he won the Kadima vote.

As military chief, Mofaz crushed a Palestinian uprising that erupted when peace talks failed in 2000, sending troops on frequent raids in occupied territory to raid militant hideouts.

Some at his rally were enthused at the prospect of choosing a non-European prime minister.

Yaacov Ravel, a retired telephone worker, also from Iran, said: "I don't care about what he knows, the main thing is he's one of ours."

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