Levy set to rejoin cabinet

IN ISRAEL / Door: WEBMASTER / 26 nov 1998 KNESSET

The Jerusalem Post

Levy set to rejoin cabinet By SARAH HONIG

JERUSALEM (November 26) – David Levy will be reentering the cabinet and his Gesher faction will merge back into the Likud, it was formally decided yesterday, although no written agreement was produced and nothing was signed.

Several key points remained unresolved, and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will have to tackle them upon his return from Europe next week.

It is possible that the deal will be implemented in two phases – first, Levy will become a minister and his faction will reenter the coalition, then later, the merger with the Likud will occur.

This is the touchiest issue, since the plan to add 500 Gesher members to the 2,700-member Likud central committee is causing an uproar in the party.

Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, who was instrumental in bringing Netanyahu and Levy together yet again, meanwhile, continued his unrelenting efforts to bring Labor into the coalition as well.

Netanyahu spent the early hours of yesterday morning in an attempt to produce a finalized agreement before his departure.

But the fact that not all loose ends were tied did not cast doubt on the fact that a deal was struck. Levy called his two other faction members – his brother Maxim and MK Yehuda Lankri – to his office and they decided he should rejoin the government and that Gesher should reenter the Likud.

Levy took great pains to appear relaxed in an interview with Israel Radio. He even had kind words for Netanyahu, though he stressed that "this is no love affair, but a very deliberate and clear decision to embark on a joint path."

He said he had "not yet decided between the Finance and National Infrastructure portfolios. When I meet with the prime minister upon his return, we shall decide on that matter and on other outstanding issues. We are in no hurry and are not operating with a stopwatch in hand. I wish the prime minister a good and successful journey. Everything will be worked out when he comes back."

The Jerusalem Post has learned that Levy confidante David Appel promised that Levy would bring all five Gesher MKs into the coalition, but in fact his dowry will consist of only three.

Michael Kleiner, who heads the Land of Israel Front in the Knesset, cheered the deal and declared he would be glad to reenter the Likud, but he will continue to oppose the Wye accord and will not necessarily vote with the government.

David Magen, who suspended his membership in Gesher long ago, said he will not be returning to the Likud and will work for the establishment of a new centrist party.

The Likud demanded that Gesher promise to vote for budget on its the second and third readings, but this has not yet been guaranteed. Much will depend on rhetoric the government produces to enable Levy to claim he is safeguarding the interests of the have-nots. Gesher also requested guarantees on financing.

There is a major commotion in the Likud over the possibility that the central committee will be dominated by Levy delegates and those loyal to Avigdor Lieberman, former director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office.

After the Likud convention last year did away with primaries for Knesset candidates, the choice was left to the central committee, making it a key party forum.

Communications Minister Limor Livnat declared war on the emerging deal with Levy yesterday. She told a gathering of Likud ministers that she "welcomes Levy’s reentry into the government, but not his taking over of the Likud. A halt must be called to this sellout of the party right now. The Likud must be nurtured and preserved. Our aim is not to safeguard the interests of Levy, Appel, Gesher, or anyone else. This is undemocratic and has nothing to do with Likud ideology. This is not what the Likud exists for."

Tourism Minister Moshe Katsav countered that "it’s 500 Levy central committee delegates or new elections."

Levy’s reaction was calm: "Maybe these people don’t see the full picture. Maybe they don’t realize what the Likud’s goals are. But that’s their business and that of the prime minister. We will respect his decisions and and will leave it up to him to put his house in order."

Sharon also suggested to Tsomet leader Rafael Eitan that his faction also unite with the Likud. But Eitan was unenthusiastic. He told the radio he personally "opposes the idea, because it would mark Tsomet’s demise." Nevertheless, he promised to put the proposal to his party’s central committee.

Sharon also met Labor’s Shimon Peres again, another in a long series of tete-a-tetes the two have had in recent months to further the national unity option. Sharon then conferred with Labor MKs and told them Netanyahu favors a broad coalition with Labor in it.

Yisrael Ba’aliya’s Natan Sharansky, however, was not sure of this. In a meeting with the two NRP ministers, he argued that Netanyahu should be coerced into national unity. Sharansky also met with Likud dissident Dan Meridor.

Labor chairman Ehud Barak remained opposed to national unity, saying that "seats for Laborites at the cabinet table will not change the government for the better. We have no faith in this government and will not be used as its fig leaf."

Netanyahu reportedly offered Labor the same number of portfolios as the Likud would get in a national unity coalition.