Israel's foreign chief resigns Moderate Levy fed up with stalled peace process, budget fights

Takes effect tomorrow

Netanyahu's coalition weakened

hard-line partners likely to gain

January 05, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy resigned yesterday, leaving embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a scant margin to govern and in greater need of his hard-line coalition partners.

Levy, among the most moderate members of Netanyahu's hawkish Cabinet, said he was fed up with the government's intransigence on the stalled peace process with the Palestinians and its perceived indifference toward Israel's impoverished citizens.

Levy, a Moroccan Jew and leader of the five-member Gesher faction, resigned in a budget flap over funding for social programs that would benefit his core constituency, lower-income Jews of Middle Eastern descent.

"I am no longer a member in this government," said the 60-year-old minister, who had threatened to quit six times during disputes with Netanyahu.

His resignation, which takes effect tomorrow, means Netanyahu's Likud-led coalition will have only a 61-59 majority in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, making it vulnerable to no-confidence votes that would force elections before the scheduled 2000 vote.

But Netanyahu didn't appear concerned by the margin. While he asked Levy to reconsider his resignation, Netanyahu predicted that his 19-month-old government would rule into the next century.

"The government will continue on its path continue to exist and continue to do what's necessary until the year 2000 or later," he said in a televised address last night.

Some political analysts and opposition members said the resignation of Levy -- who often was at odds with Netanyahu -- weakened the government. They suggested that Netanyahu would be more dependent on the hard-liners in his government who oppose the land-for-peace plan with the Palestinians implemented by the previous Labor-led government of Shimon Peres and the late Yitzhak Rabin.

But Netanyahu predicted that his government would win passage of the Israeli budget today. He also dismissed the suggestion that he might be forced to call new elections because his governing partners -- a coalition of conservatives, right-wingers and nationalist and religious Jews -- would disintegrate.

"I think this government will show it's far more stable than people think," he said.

Netanyahu also chided opposition leaders who took pleasure in the criticisms leveled against his government by the foreign minister.

"Don't smile too quickly," he warned his opponents. Netanyahu said the Israeli people, if called upon to vote in new elections, would not "make the dreadful mistake" they made in 1992.

He spoke of the "left-wing" government, referring to the Rabin-Peres administration. Netanyahu insisted, as he has done consistently since his election in May 1996, that "only this government" can produce a lasting, safe peace with the Palestinians.

The effect of Levy's resignation on Netanyahu's efforts to proceed with a second redeployment of Israeli troops from the occupied territories was uncertain last night. Israel is committed to removing additional troops from the West Bank and ceding control of the area to the Palestinians under the 1993 peace accords signed in Oslo, Norway, and a subsequent agreement signed last January.

"Netanyahu's policies have led to the disenchantment of everybody, including his partners in the coalition, and we hope this issue won't be used by Netanyahu to delay the peace process," Marwan Kanafani, an aide to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, told Reuters last night.

The United States is pressing Netanyahu to carry out a "significant and credible" removal of Israeli troops. But the prime minister has not identified the scope of any pullback. Netanyahu said last night that only the government can decide those issues. He said he will present to President Clinton the "detailed concessions, the detailed conditions" Israel will insist upon to carry out further troop pullbacks.

U.S. peace envoy Dennis Ross is to arrive in Jerusalem tomorrow to meet with Netanyahu and Arafat in preparation for meetings this month in Washington.

On the domestic front, Netanyahu said his government was committed to the social issues over which Levy resigned. He said his government had found the money needed to fund programs requested by Levy and his Gesher faction.

Netanyahu said he was committed in the coming year to financing the renovation of the outlying development towns that have suffered from neglect and unemployment, and to establishing a college loan program for the needy.

Levy called the newfound funds "hocus-pocus."

Although he held one of the most prestigious Cabinet posts, zTC Levy never wielded much power in the Netanyahu government. He and Netanyahu have been adver- saries more than allies in the past. A former bricklayer, Levy entered the political scene through the trade union movement.

In 1993, Levy battled Netanyahu for the leadership of the Likud coalition and lost. He quit and formed his own faction.

But he joined forces with Netanyahu during the 1996 election campaign and secured the foreign minister's post after Netanyahu's victory. He was one of the few voices in the Cabinet calling on the prime minister to live up to Israel's commitment to the 1993 peace accords.

Pub Date: 1/05/98

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