News Analysis: Moderate Forces and Sephardim Are Big Losers on New Likud Slate

When Israel’s Likud party faces the electorate in June, seeking a new mandate, it will lean further to the right and have a more Ashkenazic complexion than in the past.

It may also be more seriously divided.

Those were the consequences of the internal elections held by Likud’s 3,500-member Central Committee in Tel Aviv over the last week to select the party’s candidates for the June 23 Knesset elections.

The outcome was a resounding victory for the Yitzhak Shamir-Moshe Arens bloc and its newly acquired ally, Housing Minister Ariel Sharon.

It was a staggering defeat for David Levy, the Moroccan-born foreign minister and his supporters, whose favored candidates were largely squeezed out.

No sooner were the elections over late Monday then Levy retreated to the privacy of his home in the Beit She’an Valley. There, isolated even from his closest aides, he was said, to be pondering his next moves in what may be the most crucial battle of his political life.

Although Levy is not given to flamboyant gestures, a break with Likud is not considered entirely beyond the realm of possibility.

The Central Committee elections embittered Levy’s backers. They are convinced that nothing short of a conspiracy enabled the Shamir-Arens-Sharon camp to capture a majority of the 28 slots on the Likud ballot filled so far and to dominate the top seven positions.

They managed almost completely to shut out Levy and Trade Minister Moshe Nissim, leader of Likud’s former Liberal Party faction, who joined him in an unlikely partnership.

A NEW LIBERAL FACTION

Of the first 29 names on the Likud list, only three are identified with Levy, including the foreign minister himself. Two more belong to Nissim’s camp. The other 24 were picked by the Shamir-Arens-Sharon coalition.

The Likud Liberals announced Wednesday the formation of a new faction called the New Liberal Party, but they still want to be on Likud’s election list.

Levy’s supporters zeroed in on Sharon, who joined forces with Shamir only two weeks after mounting an unsuccessful challenge to his leadership of the party. They accused the housing minister of “destroying the Likud” and seeking Levy’s political demise.

Knesset member Michael Kleiner, one of the leaders of the Levy camp charged that Sharon “has raised political back-stabbing to a level hitherto unknown in Likud.”

The chief complaint of Levy’s supporters was that the Likud elections were democratic in a pro-forma sense only. The majority of the ballots were cast en bloc, according to the prearranged dictates of the dominant political camp, they said.

Levy loyalists, waiting for guidance from their man, said they were ready to accept his decision, even if it meant splitting from the party.

While there is no ideological justification for a split at this time, Kleiner explained that “as far as we are concerned, we are first and foremost in the Levy camp and only second in Likud.

“It is only because the camp is still part of the Likud that we are still in the Likud,” he said.

Levy’s defeat was a blow to Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin, who constitute the majority of Israel’s population and have always been the main source of Likud strength.

Levy, who rose from poverty to the No. 2 position in the outgoing government, is their role model.

But now more than ever, the party is dominated by Jews of European descent, as the rival Labor Party always has been.

ARENS IN LINE TO SUCCEED SHAMIR

Although Prime Minister Shamir assured Levy verbally Monday that he would stay on as foreign minister if Likud leads the next government, the Sephardic politician will no longer be first in line to succeed 76-year-old Shamir whenever he decides to step down.

That position has fallen to Arens, who will probably remain defense minister in a new Likud government. But it will be hotly contested by Sharon, who may be upgraded to finance minister in a new Likud regime.

Such factors lead political pundits to believe that Sharon’s alliance with Shamir is temporary at best. Moreover, his desire to downgrade Levy could stem from ideological considerations.

Levy has emerged as a moderate by Likud standards. He is the foremost advocate of the current Arab-Israeli peace talks, which the hawkish Sharon has loudly opposed.

Levy, who missed an important Knesset vote on the government’s national health insurance bill Wednesday, was officially absent because his wife is mourning the death of her mother.

He is using the time for some deep thinking, intimates said. He is not likely to act hastily or to make rash moves. Even in defeat, he carefully avoided making statements he might regret.

While some of his disappointed supporters chanted “Rabin, Rabin,” intimating they would sooner vote for Yitzhak Rabin, newly elected leader of the rival Labor Party, than for the Shamir-Arens-Sharon coalition heading Likud, Levy was more circumspect.

‘WUNDERKIND’ MERIDOR LOSES OUT

Rallying his minions in Tel Aviv, he made clear that his accounts with the triumvirate are not settled, but he was vague as to how and when they would be.

“Days will come when we shall take care of what needs to be taken care of,” he said cryptically, but added that it was too early to take action. “Everything in due course. We shall meet and consider together how to move on.”

Another major loser in the elections was Justice Minister Dan Meridor, once the “wunderkind” of Likud. Shamir’s supposed protege unexpectedly found himself buried in the third group of seven — No. 16 on the election list.

Meridor had been considered the most serious future contender for the office of prime minister among the young generation of Likud “princes,” which includes Binyamin Ze’ev Begin, Benjamin Netanyahu and Uzi Landau.

But he was done in by Sharon’s cohorts, apparently because of his image as a moderate and the Justice Ministry’s refusal to implement harsher measures against leaders of the Palestinian intifada.

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