The June 1981 election revealed clear signs of Israel’s ethnic rift. Shimon Peres had tomatoes thrown at him, actor Dudu Topaz called Likud members riffraff, and Menachem Begin scored brilliantly with his statement that Likud was lucky to have such riffraff at its headquarters.
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But ethnic divisions were still evident in the large parties’ Knesset slates. Shoshana Arbeli-Almozlino occupied the second slot on the ticket of the Alignment, the forerunner of today’s Labor Party. And there were fewer Ashkenazim on the Alignment’s ticket than on Likud’s.
Still, Likud was seen as pro-Mizrahi – pro-Jews with roots in North Africa and the Middle East. There were many reasons for this; one of the main ones was David Levy, who later held many portfolios including the Foreign Ministry.
Levy represented an alternative. He wasn’t like the Mizrahim in the Alignment, who were identified with the establishment, and he wasn’t like the immigrants from Iraq, who were from urban and more-educated backgrounds.
Levy was seen as more authentic. Even though he was a total party hack, when he spoke he sounded like the spokesman for the masses, not the spokesman for the party. This former construction worker, originally from Morocco, knew how to climb to the top.
After Begin resigned the premiership in 1983, Levy wanted to be the first Mizrahi prime minister. In retrospect, he had the right characteristics. He respected religion but was a moderate; he was a political hawk who also supported withdrawal from southern Lebanon.
And although he feared for his standing like every politician, he never lost touch with his Israeli roots in Beit She’an in the north. But Yitzhak Shamir won the election, and from then until the 2000s, Levy played the role of eternal second fiddle.
Levy, who always understood the importance of symbol and ceremony, is right for the job for more subtle reasons. Even though he is identified with the Foreign Ministry, his main contribution has been in social affairs.
One reason for Likud’s victory in 1977 was Begin’s decision to establish the Blue-White faction in the Histadrut labor federation. Although he was accused of straying from Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s doctrine, he pointed out the anomaly that existed since the large immigration waves of the 1950s: The Labor movement claimed to represent the working class, but the bourgeoisie were the ones who voted for the Alignment, while most workers voted for Likud. Levy became head of the Blue-White faction in 1969.
Along the way, the elitists laughed at his weak English. According to one joke, when a waiter offered him a martini, he shouted in response: “No, Mar Levy!” Mar means Mr. in Hebrew.
As if English skills reflected intelligence. The father of 12 children, Levy had no leisure time to polish his English, but he read the situation wisely. In 1982, he was the only one to foresee the massacre that would take place at Sabra and Chatila.
Of course, he had weaknesses, too. We’ll always remember how he shut himself up at home whenever he felt insulted. But compared to the celebrity politicians of our own day, his taking offense makes him seem like a paragon of sensitivity and honesty.
Also, his election as president would provide some historical irony. The man who dreamed of succeeding Begin would filling the Peres’ big shoes.