Israel’s election campaign has been thrown wide open with the dramatic announcement by former Foreign Minister David Levy that he will run for prime minister in next year’s national election.
Before a cheering throng of thousands on Sunday, Levy formally announced that he is leaving the Likud and setting up his own party.
Levy indicated last month that he would secede from Likud after party leader Benjamin Netanyahu refused to compromise on the way the Likud is to select its slate of candidates for the next Knesset.
The Moroccan-born Levy, maintaining that the Likud’s electoral procedures were biased against his supporters, made it clear that he was ready to bolt from the party.
But Levy’s decision to make a play for the prime ministership, as well as challenge the Likud for Knesset seats, came as a surprise to some.
The decision, moreover, highlighted an ongoing fragmentation on the right that could conceivably ruin Netanyahu’s prospects of a head-to-head fight with the incumbent, Labor’s Yitzhak Rabin, for the prime ministership.
It also raised temperatures in the Israeli political arena at a time when accelerated progress in the peace process is already heightening tensions among Israelis.
Under Israel’s new election laws, to be applied for the first time in the election slated for November 1996, people will cast two votes: one for prime minister and the other for the party of their choice.
In the past, Israeli voted only for the party, with Knesset members chosen on the basis of the party’s slate of candidates. The head of the victorious party automatically became prime minister.
Under the new regulations, a prime ministerial candidate would need 50 percent of the votes to win outright on the first ballot. If no candidate achieves 50 percent, a second round would be held between the two leading candidates.
Although Rabin is likely to be the only candidate on the left, there is more competition on the right. Netanyahu has already been challenged by the leader of the staunchly nationalist right-wing Tsomet Party, Rafael Eitan, a former Israel Defense Force chief of staff with wide popularity.
Netanyahu, who has been running ahead of Rabin in recent polls, was already considered likely to be robbed of the chance of an outright first-round victory by Eitan’s challenge.
But now, with Levy entering the fray and other potential candidates considering their options, speculation is growing that the Likud leader’s showing in the first round could be seriously eroded.
Indeed, certain powerful friends of the National Religious Party leader, Zevulum Hammer, are known to be urging him to run for prime minister — and arguing that he has a fair chance of success.
Believed to be among these friends is Mexican Jewish millionaire Marcus Katz, a longtime supporter of national-religious causes in Israel who reportedly is prepared to contribute heavily to a Hammer challenge for the premiership.
Others who might join the contest for prime minister are the still-unelected leader of the nascent “Third Force” party, which opposes any Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, and possibility former Soviet refusenik Natan Sharansky, who recently announced the creation of a movement that would be sensitive to the needs of the country’s recent immigrant population.
Katz is reportedly arguing that Eitan, Levy, the “Third Force” candidate and Sharansky would all sap Netanyahu’s support, while all Orthodox and traditional voters would rally around Hammer.
Even if Hammer won by just a hairbreadth, he would become the candidate to run against Rabin in the election’s second round.
Then, presumably, all the other candidates, as well as the entire right in Israel, would unite around Hammer with the hope of ousting Rabin and defeating his land-for-peace policies.
Such calculations must be, for the moment, mere fanciful speculation. They are founded principally on the novelty of the reformed electoral system.
But they do point to a potential erosion of Netanyahu’s unquestioned primacy at the head of the so-called “national camp.”
For their part, Labor members of Knesset did nothing to conceal their glee at Levy’s break with the Likud.
“We like Levy,” said Labor Knesset member Haggai Merom. “We like his constituency — people from the development towns and the outlying parts of the country.”
His colleague, Eli Dayan, put it even more bluntly.
“This is bad for them and good for us,” he said.
Officially, Labor officials said they would be glad to cooperate with Levy and his party in a new coalition to run the country after the elections.
Levy, a minister in every Israeli Cabinet from 1977 to 1992, is considered a relative moderate in Likud terms. Some Laborites have even long regarded him as a potential ally for their party.
The 57-year-old Moroccan-born Levy draws strong support at the municipal level, particularly in development towns in the Galilee and Negev.
Of Israel’s 4.5 million Jews, nearly half are Sephardim.
Political observers say Levy’s success in his risky new venture would depend largely on the list of candidates he manages to put together.
Levy said he would not publish his list of candidates for another year, leaving him ample time to approach a broad range of electorally attractive individuals — and to keep the public and his rival politicians guessing.
While Levy will try to find ways to stay in the public mind over the coming months, his archrival, Netanyahu, for his part, pushed for an early confrontation — and consequently Levy’s ouster from the party — in the hope that the public would forget the episode by the time the election campaign begins in earnest.
Meanwhile, Levy, who was foreign minister from 1990 to 1992, is carefully refurbishing his image as a statement who is familiar with the diplomatic arena and who represents firm but not extremist views.
In his speech Sunday night, Levy said his new movement would focus on social and economic issues.
He placed himself in the political center, saying he would “not be dragged to extremes which imperil national unity.”
He also lashed out at the Rabin government for what he called its “so-called peace policy.”
He called for the suspension of talks with Syria in light of the latest upsurge of violence in southern Lebanon.
The latest round of violence left three Israeli soldiers dead Sunday in clashes with Hezbollah fundamentalists. Hezbollah also launched Katyusha rocket attacks last week inside northern Israel, causing damage but no injuries.
Israeli experts say the Hezbollah offensive comes as the result of at least passive Syrian acquiescene to their moves, explaining Levy’s hawkish stance toward Damascus.
With regard to Israel’s ongoing negotiations with the Palestinians, Levy is sharply critical of the Rabin government, but significantly less vehement than Netanyahu.
With the July 1 target now fast approaching for the scheduled, but not-likely- to-be-concluded negotiations over the second phase of Palestinian self-rule, Netanyahu speaks of Rabin as “the man who cannot say `no’ to Yasser Arafat.”