Latest Netanyahu fallout could boost Levys career

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has achieved the impossible. He has caused David Levy to carry out his threat to leave the government.

It is possible that the reaction to Levy's initial resignation threat, made on Wednesday of last week, left him with little choice other than to carry it through. The media were unanimous in their cynical belief that he would not go ahead with his resignation.

He would, so it was argued, find a way to change his mind at the last minute and remain part of the government. Why else would he threaten to vote against the government and not send a letter of resignation?

Only this ultimate act would determine whether, just once, he was sincere or not. The public scorn for him over the weekend was so great that he would have lost much more face by remaining in the government than departing. And so he opted for the latter course.

The latest Netanyahu-Levy fallout was to be expected. The two men clearly despise each other. Who can forget the scandal involving the incriminating videotape of Netanyahu with a woman, which Levy claimed to have in his possession? Netanyahu was later forced to admit his infidelities.

After three decades of painfully climbing up the political ladder from the very lowest rungs, Levy was overtaken by a Johnny-come-lately who had spent much of this time making a living as an Israeli emigrant in the United States. Moreover, Netanyahu represented the European-Ashkenazi establishment, which, in Levy's view, is no different in the Likud from what it had ever been in the Labor Party.

Levy's Gesher faction was initially established as a separate political party, only to join forces with Netanyahu and the Likud before the last elections. As both a social and an ethnic force, Gesher has seen its position usurped by Shas, which has been far more successful in establishing grassroots foundations in development towns and poor neighborhoods.

Levy remains a grassroots person, but does not have the personal charisma of a religious leader or mystical guru that has proven so successful for Shas, the virtual kingmakers of Israel's next prime minister.

The Likud-Gesher feud over the budget allocations also has much deeper roots. It strikes at the heart of what has always been one of the great paradoxes of Israeli political life — namely that the majority of Israel's poor and deprived vote for the party of the right, rather than for the socialists of the left.

The reasons are not hard to find. The Likud, especially under that most European of leaders, Menachem Begin, was the anti-establishment party and reached out to the person on the street far more than the Labor Party elite.

The Likud-Herut leaders may not have been religious, but they were not scornful of tradition, as has been the case with the Labor Party and other parties of the left. It is also normal that the North African and Asian immigrants prefer to vote for a party that demonstrates a hard line on issues of peace and security, although this may prove to be one of the myths that have become common in Israeli society.

But as the socioeconomic gaps between the haves and have-nots become even sharper, the paradox of voting for a party of the right becomes even greater. This is especially the case with the present administration and the appointment of privatization guru Ya'acov Ne'eman as finance minister.

The lessons of rampant privatization for the poorer sectors of society were made clear in both the Thatcher and Reagan administrations of the 1980s. Unemployment in Britain and the United States grew, as did the number of people living below the poverty line. Societies became divided into the rich, the very rich and the underclass.

How indeed could Levy, the self-styled champion of Israel's growing underclass, look his constituents in the eye if he remained part of a government that siphoned off resources to provide bypass roads for middle-class settlers, yeshivot for Ashkenazim and apartments for white-collar Russian immigrants?

In the end he had no choice but to resign. He may be pompous and bombastic in his statements, he may be a favorite character for Israel's caricaturists and he may be sneered at by the educated, middle-class, Ashkenazi elites. But that never worried him because they are not, and never would have been, part of his constituency.

What worried him was the suggestion that he may be losing his natural support in the development towns and the poor neighborhoods. Indeed, he may already have done so.

What is certain, however, is that had he remained in the present government, he, too, would have been guilty of neglecting the interests of his own constituents — which is perhaps why Shas was so keen to get him back in there and even sent a delegation to try to change his mind.

If one thing is definite, it is that we have not seen the last of Levy. He will be a central figure in the next election campaign. And, regardless of who will be Israel's next prime minister, the chances are that Levy will be sitting around that Cabinet table.