JERUSALEM -- Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy, a proud and unschooled ex-construction worker, may use the prick of an ethnic slur to topple the ruling party.
He was called a "monkey," and the Moroccan supporters who have championed his rags-to-respectability career were likened to "aliens" with a "smell," Mr. Levy recounted Sunday in threatening to resign.
His blunt allegations of insult hold the potential of felling the Likud bloc through the same ethnic divisions that helped bring it to power in 1977.
The Moroccan-born Mr. Levy rose from poverty to his position despite lack of schooling, and he is a hero to many of the working-class Sephardic Jews -- Israelis of Middle Eastern or Asian background.
If Mr. Levy, 53, leads large numbers of them away from the conservative Likud, the fragile coalition of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir could lose in June 23 elections.
"Shamir has to decide if he wants a chance to win the elections. If so, he must satisfy Levy," said Amnon Dankner, a political columnist for the newspaper Hadashot.
Mr. Shamir, 76, tried to play down the affair, calling it "a joke."
"He does not have to carry this out. There is no justification for this," Mr. Shamir told reporters yesterday.
If Likud does fall in the election, it could be replaced by a Labor-led government expected to be more flexible in the ongoing Mideast peace talks.
Mr. Levy's threat is not yet reality. He and Mr. Shamir have until April 7 to reach a pact and avoid the foreign minister's resignation.
But the dispute does return to the spotlight class differences in Israeli society.
Sephardic Israelis gave the Likud a surprise victory in 1977. The working-class Sephardim, a slim majority in the country, felt that they were taking the brunt of the ailing economy and that they had been disregarded by the establishment Labor Party, said Shlomo Avineri, professor of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Their allegiance has largely remained: About two-thirds of Sephardic Israelis vote Likud; a majority of Israelis of European ancestry vote for the liberal Labor Party.
But with the economy again souring and Sephardim still lagging in economic clout, some have questioned this devotion to the party.
"The Likud has serious problems even without Levy leaving," pollster Hanoch Smith said in Jerusalem.
Mr. Levy, whose frustrated rampage through an unemployment office in the late 1950s began his political career, has been a symbol of success to the Sephardim.
"Ethnic politics is about status, honor and respect," said Mr. Avineri. "Levy represents [the Sephardim] on a symbolic level. If it appears the Likud is slighting them, there could be a reaction."