Foreign Minister Wants to Walk : Levy's row with Shamir reflects electoral fissures

David Levy's resignation as foreign minister of Israel won't become final for a week, plenty of time for Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to try to talk his hurt and angry subordinate into staying on the job. But for Shamir to succeed could well require that he make some ideologically unpalatable concessions.

Levy, a proud man, is nursing grievances that are both political and personal. Shamir and others in the Likud Party's leadership would have to go a long way to assuage them.

On the policy level, Levy contends that it has been a "fundamental mistake" for members of the government to go about "declaring war on America." The reference is to a cascade of recent statements from senior officials--Health Minister Ehud Olmert, a Shamir crony, is the most prominent--that seem calculated to heighten tensions with Israel's chief ally.

Levy's warm support of the revived peace process that the United States is sponsoring has won him esteem in Washington, but chiefly abuse within his own right-wing government.

Levy was insulted when Shamir bypassed him in choosing Israel's delegation to the Middle East peace conference. He was further humiliated when Likud Party leaders refused to agree that his supporters would get a large share of government jobs after the June 23 national elections.

This is, symbolically and substantively, no small thing. The Moroccan-born Levy is the most politically successful of the great wave of Sephardim who immigrated to Israel from Arab countries in the 1950s. Now a majority of the Jewish population of Israel, Sephardic voters were instrumental in putting Likud in power in 1977.

A major reason for their decisive swing to Likud was a widespread feeling that the Labor Party had come to take the Sephardic vote for granted, even as it stinted on patronage and social benefits for the growing and largely poor and undereducated Sephardic population.

If Levy quits over an issue partly based on ethnic politics, desertions by his supporters could cost Likud its chance for victory.

The opposition Labor Party--which is concerned over Israel's cooling relations with the United States and which wants Israel to continue to strongly pursue the peace process--almost certainly would get a windfall if Levy goes through with his threat to resign.

The foreign minister is not, of course, out the door yet, and Shamir may still choose to swallow hard and make the accommodations that would remove the threat.

Whatever the results of this brinkmanship, Levy has served notice on his party that he is not someone to be taken for granted.

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