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News Analysis: Sephardi and Orthodox Support Turn Labor Party into ‘one Israel’

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Perhaps it isn’t the broad rainbow coalition that Ehud Barak had hoped for.

But “One Israel,” the Labor Party leader’s long-anticipated, meticulously constructed, larger-than-Labor election ticket came into being this week, boasting both authentic Sephardi and Orthodox components.

The week’s sad events in Lebanon caused a postponement in the formal ceremonies that were to dot the I’s and cross the t’s.

But by week’s end, David Levy, the longtime Likud minister and popular Moroccan-born, blue-collar leader, was to have signed an agreement merging his Gesher Party into the new One Israel.

And early next week, the leadership of Meimad, the moderate Orthodox group, is expected to approve a deal with Barak as well.

Labor, then, will appear in the May 17 election not as Labor, but as One Israel.

The No. 3 slot on the party list, after Barak and Shimon Peres, will feature David Levy. There will be one member of Meimad and two more representatives of Gesher among the first 30 names.

Levy and Meimad’s Aviezer Ravitzky, who heads the Jewish philosophy department at Hebrew University, will serve as ministers if and when Barak wins the election for prime minister and forms the next government.

Levy has been promised a senior portfolio. The presumption is that he would return to the Foreign Ministry.

Levy resigned as Benjamin Netanyahu’s foreign minister last year, over differences related to peace policy and particularly over social policy.

An attempt by the premier to bring him back as minister of finance failed when the two could not agree on the state budget.

Now Levy says Barak is the only prime ministerial candidate who is offering new hope and new thinking for the less-affluent sectors of Israeli society.

Ravitzky reportedly wants to be minister of education, but that has not yet been decided.

A lesser-known political activist, Shlomo Lahiani of Bat Yam, near Tel Aviv, is also expected to be brought in, with the home-grown movement he has formed in his city.

Political observers concur that Levy, for years a stirring rhetorician second in Likud only to Menachem Begin himself, is past his political prime in terms of popular support.

Nevertheless, most observers say Levy is still “worth” — in terms of the votes he can attract — the two or three seats that Laborites have been required to give up for him.

Levy regards himself and his Gesher Party as the mouthpiece for a large proportion of the 200,000 unemployed Sephardim in the country. He charges the Netanyahu government with “Thatcherite” policies that have heartlessly impoverished whole communities.

Levy’s commitment to One Israel is a meaningful coup for Barak, who in 1997 publicly asked the Sephardi community’s “forgiveness” for wrongs that the Labor movement, out of insensitivity and hubris, had done to Sephardi immigrants in the early years of the state.

It signals, at least symbolically, that the gesture has resonated at least with some of the North African immigrants to whom it was chiefly directed.

Levy himself arrived in Israel as a youngster from Morocco, and worked as a bricklayer in the poor development town of Beit Shean before embarking, through the unions, on his meteoric political career.

Meimad’s accession is another feather in the Labor leader’s cap. Barak’s hard line against draft avoidance of the fervently Orthodox and on yeshiva budgets has drawn dire threats of ballot-box retribution from the fervently Orthodox.

And for much of the modern Orthodox community, Labor is too left wing.

But there is a significant segment of moderate — politically and religiously – – opinion in the Orthodox camp, and this segment may now be able to see One Israel as its ticket.

The deals did not come easily — on either side. And there have been recriminations that still resonated this week.

Some Gesher activists vowed to sever their links with Levy and return to Likud. They accused Levy of “looking after himself and his brother” but betraying the movement as a whole.

The reference is to Maxim Levy, a Knesset member, longtime mayor of Lod and close political ally of the former foreign minister, who is expected to be the No. 2 man of Gesher’s three slot-holders in One Israel.

These comments reflect a deep-seated antipathy still present among many Moroccan Israelis toward Labor.

In Meimad, too, not everyone is happy with the link to Labor.

Part of the movement is negotiating with the still-evolving centrist party under the leadership of Yitzhak Mordechai.

That party, too, may offer a safe slot to a modern Orthodox figure to broaden its appeal. Among the names mentioned are Knesset Member Alex Lubotzky, who has seceded from the Third Way Party to join Meimad, and Dr. Yehuda Ben-Meir, a one-time deputy foreign minister who walked away from the National Religious Party several years ago.

In the Labor Party itself, One Israel has been met with a marked dearth of enthusiasm among would-be Knesset members who, after hard-fought primary races, find themselves in slots on the party list that might not make the final cut, depending on how well the party does in the elections.

Having negotiated the deals, Barak is now working overtime to smooth ruffled feathers among his party’s own loyalists.

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