David Levy (Israeli politician)
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|Date of birth||21 December 1937|
|Place of birth||Rabat, Morocco|
|Year of aliyah||1957|
|Knessets||7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16|
|Faction represented in Knesset|
|1977–1981||Minister of Immigrant Absorption|
|1979–1990||Minister of Housing and Construction|
|1981–1992||Deputy Prime Minister|
|1990–1992||Minister of Foreign Affairs|
|1996–1998||Deputy Prime Minister|
|1996–1998||Minister of Foreign Affairs|
|1999–2000||Deputy Prime Minister|
|1999–2000||Minister of Foreign Affairs|
|2002||Minister without Portfolio|
David Levy (Hebrew: דוד לוי, born 21 December 1937) is an Israeli politician who served as a member of the Knesset between 1969 and 2006, as well as Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Immigrant Absorption, Minister of Housing and Construction and as a Minister without Portfolio. Although most of his time as a Knesset member was spent with Likud, he also led the breakaway Gesher faction, which formed part of Ehud Barak's Labor-led government between 1999 and 2001.
Levy was born in Rabat, Morocco and emigrated to Israel in 1957. He began working in construction and became a leader of Beit She'an's working-class population, composed of many fellow Jews of North African descent, which earned Levy an advantage in his early career as a union activist when he began to campaign for membership in the Histadrut Labour Federation's executive body, then completely dominated by loyalists of the governing Mapai. Levy headed the opposition Blue-White faction. Before 1969 he also served a term as mayor of Beit She'an.
Early political career
Until 1973 Likud had been an alliance of the right-wing Herut and centrist Liberal parties known as Gahal, which had never had an active role in governing Israel and had always been a weak opposition. Levy distinguished himself as the first of many young working-class members of the party from a Mizrahi (Oriental) background. Until then Herut and the Liberals had been both dominated by right-wing upper-class or upper-middle-class intellectuals, businessmen, agriculturalists, or lawyers.
Levy's rise expressed the surging power of the new rebellion of the Mizrahi Israeli. In 1977, Levy became one of the most strident campaigners in Likud leader Menachem Begin's triumphant campaign that overturned the 30 year domination of Israeli elections by parties of the left. He drove hundreds of thousands of Mizrahi voters to the polls to vote for Begin, whose populist messages struck a chord in their hearts after the three decades of almost completely Ashkenazic Mapai hegemony.
From 1977 until 1981, Levy was Minister of Immigrant Absorption in the first two Begin governments. At this time the largest issues he dealt with during his tenure in that ministry were the campaign to liberate Soviet Jews confined to the USSR, and the controversy over the Beta Israel, a group from Ethiopia that had still not received total recognition as Jews at that time. Levy was not as active in the latter effort as much as Defence Minister Ezer Weizman his successor, while the former continued to drag on with very little results. As such, Levy's holding that portfolio was unremarkable.
Levy's more important role in government began during the formation of Begin's rightist government when the Democratic Movement for Change resigned. On 15 January 1979 he was given the Ministry of Housing and Construction, a post he invested a great deal of time in. Levy held the ministry until 1990, and his policies are controversial for their repeated concessions to the settler movements, which the opposition Labour Party branded pure politicking.
The favours that Levy helped organize for the settlers helped pave the way for a major construction boom in the West Bank, even though Levy never became a real power broker among the settlers. On the positive side, Levy was able to make housing for most of his thirteen years as minister more affordable (radical inflation in 1984 produced a crisis as property and rent values plummeted along with the Israeli Shekel's). While rival Likud members like Defence Minister Ariel Sharon and Health Minister Ehud Olmert were hit by controversies regarding abuse of their positions, and repeated finance ministers fell, Levy remained stable in the Housing Ministry. Through the governments of Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, and Shimon Peres he was able to remain untouchable.
As a senior Likud figure, Levy, a construction worker with an eighth grade education, was able to enter doors closed to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. These included Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a powerful Sephardic rabbi with inclinations towards Shamir's nemesis, Labour leader Peres, and the spiritual leader of the Shas party. Levy helped Likud court Shas into the Shamir government, until that party pulled out in 1990.
Levy also was the symbolic leader of the young Mizrahi Likud leaders that included former Kiryat Malakhi mayor Moshe Katzav, later President of Israel, and David Magen, mayor of neighbouring Kiryat Gat. In the Likud Central Committee, Levy commanded a huge portion of the members, and was considered a true candidate to succeed Shamir.
In 1987, he met Benjamin Netanyahu, then the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. The meeting, in a New York hotel, was an attempt by Levy to lure Netanyahu into his camp in preparation for the 1988 Knesset elections. Levy viewed Netanyahu as a potential spokesman for him in the Knesset, as he was viewed as a master at rhetoric and debating during his career as a diplomat.
Netanyahu turned down Levy's offer and became a nominal ally of then-Defense Minister Moshe Arens (his former boss when Arens was Ambassador to the United States in the early 1980s). This created a fierce enmity between the two, one that would lead to the decline of Levy's influence in the Likud.
One of the personal qualities that hurt Levy's career was his perceived pompousness, and his obviously shifting policies in regards to the peace process, the Likud's libertarian economic policy, and allegations by and against him of racism. As hard as it had been for a Mizrahi youth to succeed in Mapai, in the Likud there were also many members who held prejudice views against Sephardim, just as there were many operatives working for Levy who held a grudge against Ashkenazim (European Jews). Also, during the Shamir administrations, the Likud caused many Mizrahi voters to vote for Shas, the Israeli Mizrahi Movement ("Tami"), Labour, or parties of the extreme right. Levy's public image transformed into a caricature of the stigma of a corrupt clan chief. Nevertheless, his popularity remained untouchable in his native Beit Shean, where today his son Jackie is mayor.
As the Mizrahi street drifted away from the Likud, Levy's rivals in the party attempted to minimize his influence. However, in 1990 Shamir faced a major crisis when the Labour and Shas parties brought down his government and coalition, based on what Shimon Peres and Itzhak Rabin—both of whom sought to become Prime Minister, according to then Foreign Minister Moshe Arens' memoir of the period, Broken Covenant—termed Shamir's refusal to consider any peace initiatives with the Palestinians. Backed into a corner, Shamir formed a narrow, right-wing coalition. Levy was appointed the Foreign Minister.
Thought to be one of the top four ministries (with defense, interior, and finance), Levy believed that the new post would boost his chances of gaining the Likud chairmanship. Instead it was a disaster. Levy, who speaks Hebrew, French, and Moroccan Arabic, was a dead weight when it came to important discussions with American diplomats, especially Secretary of State James Baker. His frequent slips of the tongue embarrassed many of his coalition colleagues, and he was quickly lampooned by the Israeli media and public. In contrast to his dedication to clear policies that had been so crucial in Housing, he could not handle the public pressure of the Foreign Ministry where he knew almost no one.
What made the situation a complete disaster was the appointment of Netanyahu as his deputy. While Levy was serious-faced and often vehement in his speech, Netanyahu was a master of sweet-talk and a media darling. In his first term in the Knesset, Netanyahu had earned countless accolades, and during the 1988 election campaign he had dominated as a debater against Labour Knesset candidates. As Levy's deputy Netanyahu shined, being seen as Shamir's supposed right-hand man at the Madrid Conference of 1991.
As the 1992 elections neared, Levy vowed to crush Netanyahu, and used all of his influence in the Central Committee to clip his rival's wings. The effort was in vain, as Netanyahu wowed the political spectrum when he earned the no. 2 slot on the Likud list after Shamir, while Levy earned the eighth. The humiliating defeat brought to attention how much Levy's support had slipped. Shamir seemed ready to toss Levy in favour of the young ex-diplomat.
Instead the election was a painful defeat that decimated the Likud in general, and ended Shamir's years as chairman. Levy took some solace in the fact that the chairmanship was open, and the person in the best position to take it was himself.
Levy's candidacy was supposed to rejuvenate the Likud's Mizrahi voting base, and form a hawkish working class opposition to Labour. Levy's policies on the peace question was moderate relative to Ariel Sharon, Moshe Arens, and almost all other senior Likud figures.
Again he ran parallel to Benjamin Netanyahu. At that time, right-wing Israelis were launching a long opposition plan to the new prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin (Labour). Netanyahu took a hard-line stand, describing a doomsday scenario of terror at the doorstep of every Israeli. This tactic hit Levy with Mizrahim, who statistically are less inclined to support peace initiatives, because of his moderate and often pro-peace platform. Netanyahu's victory in the post-election primary was a landslide and led to a revolution in the party. The incredible debts, indulgences, and negligence that throughout the 1980s and up to 1992 had settled over the Likud were blamed on David Levy among others. He was branded corrupt, though Netanyahu, Sharon, and Ehud Olmert were far more famous for their financial tricks than he.
Levy refused to accept Netanyahu as the new Likud chairman. The situation in the Likud at the time was stormy. Netanyahu's management tactics were angering many Likud supporters, while his right-wing rhetoric gained the confidence of Sharon, Benny Begin, and the hard-line party members. Levy knew that if he was cowed by his suave nemesis his supporters would either join Netanyahu's camp in order to oppose the new Oslo Accords, or go the opposite direction and back a more socialist candidate. He also knew that Netanyahu would not be willing to give him one of the top four ministries should the Likud return to power after his disastrous term as foreign minister.
The result was the establishment of Gesher ("Bridge"), Levy's own political party. Levy mistakenly believed he could draw a mass defection from the Likud of parliament members, and such a disaster would lead senior party members in the Central Committee into a panic that would topple Benjamin Netanyahu. What instead occurred was that only David Magen, a rather obscure Moroccan politician and former mayor of Kiryat Gat who served as Minister of Economics and Planning in the last Shamir government broke with the Likud. Though many of Gesher's members were derided by the press as lackeys of Levy, Magen would prove to be rather independent, and later broke with Levy to join the Center Party in 1998 (then known as Israel in the Center).
Gesher never reached the potential Levy predicted of it, and Netanyahu's sensational campaign to topple Rabin helped revitalize the Likud and bring in new members. One disadvantage for the disaffected populist leader was the constant press attention on the Oslo Accords, waves of terror attacks, rumours of negotiations surrounding the Golan Heights' future, and the low priority that the media gave to economic and labour issues. Levy had to walk a fine line between opposing Netanyahu's hard-line rhetoric too harshly (thereby appearing to be an ally of Yitzhak Rabin), and not making enough noise (which would cause his members to lose interest). The idea of joining Rabin's Labour Party openly even in coalition was at that time still unacceptable to many Moroccans and other Mizrahim resentful of the old Mapai that had preceded Labour.
The winning partnership
By Winter 1996, Levy was beginning to break under the stress of his first election campaign outside of the Likud. Netanyahu, similarly, needed as much street power as possible, even if Levy's was significantly reduced from the past.
Since the 4 November 1995 murder of Rabin, Netanyahu was frantically trying to moderate his image from a hard-line demagogue as many bereaved Israelis saw him, into a skeptic who wanted to slow the pace of concessions to PLO leader Yasser Arafat. Levy's inclusion would somewhat bring him closer to that goal without forcing him to take a clear stand in favour of the Oslo Accords. The opposition leader was trying to bridge the gap by recruiting the hard-line Tzomet (Junction) party of Gen. Rafael Eitan on the right, as well as the moderate right-wing Gen. Yitzhak Mordechai in the center.
Throughout the spring, Netanyahu and Levy held negotiations, and in the end Levy agreed to establish Likud-Gesher-Tzomet, a joint three-party list for the May 1996 elections. Though the broad-based coalition at the end of the outgoing Knesset included 37 members (three Tzomet members defected earlier to join Rabin's government) even threatened Labour, which had lost two members to Avigdor Kahalani's The Third Way, a group opposed to any compromise on the Golan Heights.
Though a massive success for Netanyahu, the 1996 elections gained very little for Levy in terms of power within Likud-Gesher-Tzomet. The real no. 2 leader in the Likud was now Mordechai, and the right-wing character of the government was clear from the start. Levy also demanded the Foreign Ministry, which he received, even without being blunted by a deputy. He believed that this way he could remain totally in control of the ministry, but instead he was again overshadowed by Netanyahu, who controlled almost every important foreign policy decision during his term. David Magen was given the post of Deputy Minister of Finance, under Prof. Yuval Ne'eman.
Netanyahu's term as prime minister became a stormy period for Levy and other coalition partners. The Bar-On Affair, an attempt to alter the investigation of Shas leader Aryeh Deri, created tension amongst the partners, as did Netanyahu's unclear policies on peace negotiations. The economic policies of Yaakov Ne'eman hurt the Likud's image with the working class, as despite a fall in terror attacks and the adoption of a deregulation agenda, unemployment grew while growth shrank.
On 6 January 1998 David Levy quit the coalition along with former ambassador to France and Channel 2 chairman Yehuda Lancry and his brother and former Lod mayor Maxim. Gesher was once again totally independent, and Levy drifted closer to the policies of the Labour Party and opposition leader Ehud Barak. The total lack of progress on the peace front had created cracks in his political rival Netanyahu's foundation. In early 1997 Minister of Science Benny Begin had broken from the Likud to form Herut – The National Movement, a group opposed to the Wye Plantation agreement of that year and the ceding of most of Hebron to Palestinian Authority control, and brought with him fellow Likud members David Re'em and Michael Kleiner. Also, a year after Levy left the Likud, Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai left the Likud to form Israel in the Center, a group that hoped to compete with Gesher for moderate voters, and took with him David Magen and Dan Meridor from the Likud.
In 1999, a no-confidence vote in the Knesset forced Netanyahu to call early elections for May. Levy had not yet been able to redevelop Gesher's street appeal and was caught with four choices:
- Back Netanyahu: If the incumbent won Levy would gain far more influence because of the defection of the party's right wing, and if he lost then Levy would be a prime candidate in the post-election primary.
- Join Ehud Barak: Other small parties were joining the Labour Party in what would eventually be called One Israel. Levy was sure to get a good ministry in the event of a victory.
- Join Mordechai: The former general is Iraqi, and therefore was guaranteed to draw Mizrahi votes away from the other larger parties, and his centrist platform was very similar to Levy's, yet he started off with far more support.
- Run independently: Gesher would have to generate an administrative infrastructure it did not yet have, and would depend on Levy's excellent connections with local activists, many of whom would take votes from Likud. A gain in Knesset seats would force the next prime minister to reckon with him.
Levy chose the second alternative, because pre-election polls showed a deep slide in Netanyahu's support. Likud had descended effectively from 32 seats in the body, to only 20 with the defections of Mordechai, Levy, Begin and their supporters. He also merged Gesher into One Israel, and became very much a partner in the new coalition's leadership. This angered many former supporters who viewed this as the ultimate treason either to his Mizrahi followers or the Likud.
With the new system of direct election of the prime minister, and a separate election of the Knesset, the number of parties elected to the body increased markedly in 1999 from eleven to fifteen, and the number would only grow as parties subdivided due to political tensions. The winning faction, One Israel, took only 26 seats, a record low for a governing party, though Barak won 56% of the direct vote for prime minister. Netanyahu's Likud was crushed as expected, winning only 19 seats and leading to his immediate resignation from the Knesset and public life.
Slow slide back to the Likud
Levy once again was chosen to be foreign minister, with his deputy being Nawaf Mazalha (One Israel), an Arab Israeli with less experience. The end result was, however, Barak's assumption of Netanyahu's policy of meddling in the Foreign Ministry more than prime ministers are used to. Levy was for the third time a passive partner as foreign minister. He quit the coalition in April 2000, both in response to Barak's desperate attempts to move peace negotiations forward, and in protest to the announced plan to withdraw Israeli military forces from Lebanon.
Levy was the first minister in Barak's government to resign when his demands were not met. He reformed Gesher along with Maxim Levy and rookie legislator Mordechai Mishani. Like Netanyahu, Barak failed to preserve the cooperation once enjoyed by his coalition; the leftist Meretz party left in the end of June that year, the National Religious Party (NRP), Shas, and Yisrael BaAliyah only two weeks later. In addition Barak's popularity plummeted following the outbreak of the Second Intifada in September 2000. By November the prime minister had resigned in order to bring new elections that would take the form of only a direct vote for prime minister. This hurt Levy, because the format limited the choice in the end to a ballot between Barak, and opposition leader Ariel Sharon (Likud). The vote in February gave Sharon a landslide victory.
The new government offered Levy less benefits than Barak's: Because the Likud held only 19 seats, they were pressured to form a coalition with One Israel, Shas, Yisrael BaAliyah, One Nation, National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu, United Torah Judaism, and the NRP. Sharon was able to form a coalition without Levy, meaning that for only the second time since 1977 he was left without a ministry in a new government.
In February 2002 One Nation quit Sharon's government to protest his disastrous economic parties. Their leader, Histadrut Labour Federation chairman Amir Peretz, has many similarities to Levy, with one of the few differences being that he had broken from Labour and not the Likud. One month later the rightist National Union-Israel Beiteinu quit the coalition, claiming that Sharon's restraint policy was equivalent to appeasing the PLO. This situation allowed Levy to enter the coalition in early April, though with almost no influence; he was named Minister Without Portfolio. Not long afterward Shas was fired from the government and was allowed back in, cementing Sharon's stability as prime minister at least until the end of the year. One Israel quit in November 2002 to force elections for January 2003.
This situation allowed Levy to enter the coalition in early April, though with almost no influence; he was named Minister Without Portfolio. Not long afterward Shas was fired from the government and was allowed back in, cementing Sharon's stability as prime minister at least until the end of the year. One Israel quit in November 2002 to force elections for January 2003.
Levy's position for the elections for the 16th Knesset was precarious. He stood to gain nothing running with Gesher. With the abandonment of the direct for prime minister, the Likud was gaining support while sectarian parties were falling apart. Levy left Gesher and moved back into the Likud, in a controversial act which created a lot of disagreement among Gesher members. In a meeting that was held by the party's members following Levy's move, Etty (Estee) Shiraz, the party's head of communications at that time, was elected as the head of Gesher instead of David Levy, and led Gesher in the elections to the 16th Knesset. Levy and his supporters objected in the petition to prevent Shiraz and the rest of Gesher members from continuing the party's activity, and asked to dissolve the party and relate to his move as a merge of his political party in its entirety. The struggle continued years later, while Shiraz and other members of the party are trying to rebuild Gesher and transform it into a modern social party appealing to Israel's young generation of academics and professionals, and David Levy and his supporters seeking to dismantle it. David Levy was elected as a member of the 16th Knesset but did not get a realistic place on the Likud list in the election to the 17th Knesset and disappeared from the political arena. Shiraz moved to the US in 2003, while the rest of the party's members continued the legal process which lasted a few years. In 2007, the Court decided to dismantle Gesher and the party ceased to exist.
The astounding victory in January 2003 did not play well into the hands of Levy. He was not awarded a ministry in the new (second) Sharon government. The merger left most of Levy's Gesher support intact, and he was able to prevent a renegade faction from splitting off in protest of the party's disbandment. Nevertheless, the Likud had become a bloated organization as a result of its 40 Knesset member result (today a high mark), and his influence was minuscule in relation to right-wing Likudniks like MK Uzi Landau and activist Moshe Feiglin, the leader of the Central Committee faction Manhigut Yehudit. Levy's future in the Likud is not expected to be prosperous, as the right-wing has recruited a far greater number of new members than moderates.
Following the Kadima split, Levy failed to acquire a high position on Likud's Knesset list, and as a result of this lost his seat at the 2006 election.
- "David Levy". Knesset. Retrieved 14 October 2014.
- Mazal Mualem; Lily Galili (28 August 2008). בחירות 2009: נתניהו מוטרד מהרשימה ה"אשכנזית" והציע לדוד לוי לחזור לפוליטיקה [Election 2009: Netanyahu's troubled "Ashkenazi" list and suggested David Levy return to politics]. Haaretz (in Hebrew). Retrieved 14 October 2014.
- Kaspît, Ben; Kafir, Ilan (July 1998). Netanyahu: the road to power. Carol. p. 130. ISBN 978-1-55972-453-1. Retrieved 30 November 2011.
- "בחירות לכנסת ה-16". Knesset.
- "ביהמ"ש ביטל השתתפות "גשר" בבחירות". YNet News. YNet.