Resignation marks latest twist in David Levys career

But Levy's resignation Sunday was not just a power play by one of the country's most successful Sephardi politicians.

It also reflected his opposition to the government's economic policy, his disagreements over the pace of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and, perhaps, most importantly, his long-standing rivalry with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Long before Aryeh Deri, the Moroccan-born leader of the ultra-religious Shas Party, came to reflect the anger of Sephardi Jews in Israel, Levy was there.

Levy personifies the alliance between the Ashkenazi-ruled Herut movement — which eventually formed the nucleus of the Likud — and the masses of Middle Eastern Jews, who were frustrated with what they saw as discriminatory treatment by the Labor Party.

Levy built his career from the grass roots, using his experience as a construction worker to become a political activist and a labor leader.

And it was this working-class background that served Levy as he rose in the Likud ranks. In the past two decades, he has held numerous posts in the party, including stints as housing minister and deputy prime minister, as well as foreign minister in the government of Yitzhak Shamir.

Indeed, when he appointed Levy to the Cabinet, Begin said it was "a gesture of gratitude to our brethren, the Middle Eastern Jews, who supported us."

Levy's unusual background also appeared to create a street-fighting style that characterized his political machinations. Indeed, his resignation came only after he had threatened several times to do so.

And these threats hearkened back to earlier times.

In 1992, just a few months before elections, Levy came close to resigning from Shamir's government after some of his Sephardi allies were relegated to low positions in Likud's lineup of candidates for the Knesset.

Levy has also had ideological differences with Likud.

Before he formed the Gesher Party in 1995, he had long been the strongest voice in Likud for his working-class constituency, and he has continued his fight for more social-service programs in the governing coalition; indeed, it was the lack of support for these programs that he said was the lightning rod for his resignation.

Levy has also been a moderate amid a sea of hardliners.

At the peak of the 1982 Lebanon War, he was among the few who spoke loud and clear in favor of an Israeli pullout.

Last month, he refused to accompany Netanyahu to his meetings with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, saying that the discussions were a waste of time unless the premier came armed with specific proposals for a further redeployment from the West Bank.

But when Levy finally threw in the towel this week, it was because, in his own words, he "has had it." He could no longer work with Netanyahu.

Levy's personal dispute with Netanyahu dates back to October 1991, when Shamir bypassed Levy to be his second in command at the opening round of the Middle East peace talks in Madrid. Shamir's choice: Netanyahu, Levy's deputy in the Foreign Ministry.

Shamir's reasons for choosing Netanyahu over Levy were likely the same ones that eventually propelled Netanyahu to the prime minister's post that Levy has long coveted.

Netanyahu has a political charisma that Levy cannot seem to cultivate: The premier is fluent in English — a language that Levy does not know — and he is photogenic.

It is no secret that Levy has always dreamed of becoming premier. When Begin resigned in 1983, Levy made a dramatic announcement: "Menachem Begin," he exclaimed, "you have got yourself an heir."

But over the years, he repeatedly lost his campaigns to become the Likud's top candidate, declaring at one point, "I have realized that the movement in which I was raised, and in which I had invested all my life, is not ripe to be led by a Moroccan."

After Levy formed his own party, he agreed not to run for premier in exchange for a promise that seven Gesher members would be given reasonably high slots on the Likud list.

Gesher members took five Knesset seats in the 1996 elections and Levy received the foreign affairs portfolio.

But this move did not pacify him for long.

Even before Netanyahu asked the Knesset for a vote of confidence in his coalition government in July 1996, Levy threatened to quit unless his longtime partner Ariel Sharon received a Cabinet appointment. Sharon became one of the more powerful ministers in the Cabinet.

Since then, Levy has threatened to resign at least four more times, most recently about three months ago when, following the failed assassination attempt on Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Jordan, Netanyahu bypassed him in negotiations over the return of two Mossad agents, using Sharon and Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai instead.

When Levy carried through on his threat, leading to renewed speculation that he might form an alliance with the Labor Party, it garnered him favorable headlines.

"Levy quit like a man," read a banner headline in Ma'ariv.

But many of his supporters were disappointed. The man who had long symbolized the rising political power of Middle Eastern and North African Jews might have demonstrated that he is honorable, but, for the time being, he is out of the top echelons of government.