Foreign Minister's Threat to Resign Poses Test for Israel's Likud Party

ISRAEL'S ruling Likud Party was thrown into confusion yesterday, in the wake of Foreign Minister David Levy's decision to resign in an internal power struggle that has sapped party strength just three months away from general elections.

Mr. Levy's announcement on Sunday night, at the end of an impassioned speech to a group of supporters, raised the prospect that the foreign minister, one of the Likud's major vote-pullers, might play a less than enthusiastic role in the current campaign.

It also failed to stem calls from some members of his faction for him to leave the party altogether. But the timing of the decision was seen both inside and outside the Likud as an act of brinkmanship, leaving plenty of time for Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to meet Levy's demands and persuade him to reconsider.

Levy cannot formally present his resignation until Sunday's Cabinet meeting, and it would not take effect for 48 hours. "He upped the stakes, and he put the ball back squarely in Shamir's court," says one Levy supporter. "Shamir said ... David is waving an empty pistol. Let's see how empty that pistol really is."

Levy has been feuding with Mr. Shamir for several weeks over the division of party jobs and of Cabinet posts in the next government should the Likud win the June 23rd election. He is demanding that his supporters be given 32 percent of all jobs, to match the vote he received in the Likud leadership elections last month.

Shamir has refused such an arrangement, arguing that it would institutionalize the growing factionalism within the party. He is also clearly aware that offering Levy one-third of government posts would oblige him to give another 22 percent to supporters of Housing Minister Ariel Sharon, who came in third in the leadership race. That would leave the prime minister's own camp in the minority in any future Cabinet. If Levy's resignation is accepted, his moderate voice in the Mideast peace talks is unlikely to be missed since Shamir has entrusted negotiations to his own people, not Levy's staff.

Behind the row lies deep resentment among Levy's supporters in the Likud about the way they have been treated by followers of Shamir and Defense Minister Moshe Arens. In internal party elections to choose the Likud slate of parliamentary candidates, Levy's associates won fewer slots than they considered their due.

The foreign minister, a former bricklayer from Morocco, is known as a man highly sensitive to slights against his background. In a speech Sunday, he railed against Likud leaders who he said had called him "a monkey who just came down from the trees."

The party leadership's perceived bias against poorer Sephardic Jews of oriental origins - whose votes have ensured Likud election victories since 1977 - is at the root of Levy's campaign, his supporters say. It also threatens the ruling party's chances at the upcoming elections.

For this reason, some of Levy's supporters expect Shamir to make concessions in the coming days. "It would affect terribly the Likud party if people like David Levy and his supporters avoided any participation in the campaign," says Reuven Rivlin, a close Levy ally.

"I really think that as a leader, [Shamir] will try to make any kind of an effort in order to bring peace to the party," he adds.

The prime minister, however, has shown no signs of backing down, leading some Levy loyalists to advocate a total break with the Likud, and creation of a new party that might hold the balance of power in the next parliament.

"The time has come for Mr. Shamir to understand that he hasn't got us in his pocket," says Prosper Azran, one of Israel's most prominent mayors, and a leading supporter of the foreign minister.

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