News Analysis: Latest Levy-Netanyahu battle reveals divisions, power struggle

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JERUSALEM (JTA) — No sooner had Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister David Levy resolved their latest high-profile rift than a dispute surfaced about what they had just agreed upon.

"It's just a matter of time before the next crisis erupts," a source close to Levy said.

Sunday's reconciliation came after two weeks of public exasperation and threats of resignation by Levy, who said he and his ministry were being excluded from peace process diplomacy.

Levy's particular target was Netanyahu's American-born foreign policy adviser, Dore Gold, who has been serving as the premier's point man in contacts with the Arab world and with the Clinton administration.

The breaking point came when Levy belatedly discovered that Gold had held a meeting in Washington with U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher at Netanyahu's behest.

Neither the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem nor the Israeli Embassy in Washington had been informed about Gold's discreet diplomacy.

Gold had also been dispatched by Netanyahu during the past two months to Jordan, to Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat in the Gaza Strip and to Persian Gulf states as part of Netanyahu's efforts to keep lines of communication open with the Arab world despite the slowdown in the peace process.

His ire growing, Levy publicly accused Gold of having set up a "Jordan desk" within the Prime Minister's Office and of blatantly allocating to himself functions constitutionally and traditionally discharged by the Foreign Ministry.

Levy also took issue with Netanyahu's plan to appoint another of his close aides, Cabinet Secretary Danny Naveh, to head the Israeli negotiating team when full negotiations with the Palestinians resume.

Naveh, a pivotal figure within the Prime Minister's Office, would report straight back to Netanyahu, leaving the Foreign Ministry hard put to stay in the loop.

Staffers at the Foreign Ministry backed Levy.

They, like their minister, have felt increasingly left out as the Prime Minister's Office signals to governments around the world that it is the best address in Jerusalem for getting things done.

In recent years, the Foreign Ministry was hardly far from the action of the unfolding peace process.

Under the previous government, Foreign Ministry Director General Uri Savir headed the negotiations with the Palestinians while retaining his role as a close aide and adviser to Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

And also under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, when Peres served as foreign minister, senior Foreign Ministry staffers — among them Deputy Minister Yossi Beilin and legal adviser Yoel Singer — played key roles in the peace process.

Levy brought matters to a head earlier this month by pointedly boycotting Cabinet meetings and then by flying off to the United States last week for an open-ended private visit with friends in New Jersey.

Aides to Levy and Netanyahu continued to seek a formula to patch up the ruptured relationship.

On Sunday, after Levy returned home from the United States, he and Netanyahu held a two-hour tete-a-tete, after which peace was officially restored.

The Prime Minister's Office issued a formal statement in which Netanyahu was quoted as greatly valuing Levy's contribution to the peace process.

The two had agreed on ways to smooth cooperation between the Prime Minister's Office and the Foreign Ministry, the statement said.

It announced that negotiations with the Palestinians would be headed by former Israel Defense Force Chief of Staff Dan Shomron.

The statement also said that a "ministerial steering group" would be formed to oversee the peace process. It would include Netanyahu, Levy and Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai.

The return to interministerial harmony achieved by the Netanyahu-Levy meeting lasted only from Sunday afternoon until that evening.

It was Levy who first upset the delicate balance by appearing on Sunday's prime-time TV news programs to announce that Gold's Jordan desk would be disbanded and Gold himself reduced to his proper role as the prime minister's foreign policy adviser.

Practical diplomacy, the foreign minister said, would be in the exclusive hands of his ministry.

Sources in the Prime Minister's Office retorted in Monday's newspapers that the so-called Jordan desk is made up of just a couple of experts — one of them, in fact, a Foreign Ministry staffer. So there was nothing really to disband, they said.

Moreover, these sources said, Gold will continue to carry out discreet missions abroad for Netanyahu.

Sunday's reconciliation, they said, had basically been a matter of saving face for Levy, "helping him to climb down the ladder he has climbed up."

Above all, the sources said, the conduct of the peace process would remain firmly in Netanyahu's hands.

The opposition sought to score points over the fueding.

"Spare us these sticky and pathetic `reconciliations,'" said Meretz leader Yossi Sarid, adding that the feuds were "not about policy, but only about ego."

Levy finds it hard to adjust to his subordinate role in a Cabinet led by a man many years his junior — a man, moreover, with whom he has had a stormy and contemptuous relationship.

As foreign minister, he finds himself not even No. 2, but rather No. 3, behind Mordechai — or even lower in the order of perceived power and prestige, behind Finance Minister Dan Meridor and Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon.

The relationship between prime minister and foreign minister has been awkward in Israel, right back to the days of David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett.

In a country wrestling constantly with issues of war and peace, it is natural that the prime minister himself, with his intimate staff, be involved in hands-on diplomacy on a daily basis.

This situation has proved a fertile source of friction.

Foreign Ministers Golda Meir (under Ben-Gurion), Abba Eban (under Meir) and Yigal Allon (under Rabin) all found themselves fighting to protect their turf and to ensure for themselves that vital ingredient of power in any government: the right to know.

And this built-in tension may prove to have been intensified by the new system of government ushered in with the direct election of Netanyahu. Now, the Knesset must resolve to dissolve itself — and that is an altogether remote scenario.

Ministers rocking the boat can be fired. New people can be appointed without the need for the prime minister to inform the Knesset, let alone win its approval.