Israeli Hard-Liner Shakes Off Nay-Sayers

DAVID LEVY, meet Dan Quayle. After Mr. Levy was plucked out of obscurity by Menachem Begin to become Israel's housing minister in 1979, Levy's Sephardic background and lack of higher education made him the butt of sometimes cruel ethnic humor. A little book called ``All the David Levy Jokes'' became the rage.

A dozen years later, as he takes control of Israel's Foreign Ministry and gains the inside track to the prime ministership, Levy is having the last laugh.

Levy was born in Morocco and emigrated to Israel when he was 19. His first year in the small Jordan Valley town of Beit She'an, where he still lives, was darkened by poverty, unemployment, and a 12-day jail term for ransacking an employment office in a moment of frustration.

``Those were terrible days,'' he recalled later in his biography. ``I realized that I had to do something to change my situation. ... I saw that I had to find a road that would lead to the corridors of power.''

After working as a cotton picker, ditch digger, and eventually a construction worker, his skills as an organizer gained the attention of Israeli politicians. He first joined the Labor Party but soon found a more hospitable home in the Likud Party of Mr. Begin, who became his mentor. At 31, he became the youngest member of the Knesset, and in 1981 was named by Begin as deputy prime minister, the first Jew of Sephardic (non-European) origin to rise so high in Israel's political establishment, which is dominated by Ashkenazic (European) Jews.

Although he shares the conservative foreign policy views of his Sephardic constituents, Levy has demonstrated streaks of independence, as when he opposed his party's 1982 Lebanon war. An investigation after the war revealed that he was the only Cabinet minister to warn against Israel's decision to send Phalangist troops into Beirut's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, where hundreds Palestinians were massacred.

No longer the butt of jokes, Levy is now recognized as an astute campaigner, orator, and administrator. Whether such skills will translate into success in the unfamiliar world of international diplomacy remains to be seen.

``It's a make-or-break situation for him,'' says Daniel Elazar of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. ``If he does well, he becomes a contender for succession to the prime ministership. If he does poorly, he'll become a backbencher.''

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