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Tough Balancing Act Ahead For Israel's New Foreign Minister


AS David Levy steps onto the international stage this week as Israel's new foreign minister, he confronts this uneviable choice: He can pursue his government's hard-line political agenda or he can keep its relations with the United States and the rest of the international community on an even keel. ``He cannot do both,'' says a long-time Israeli analyst, sizing up the diplomatic prospects of Israel's new right-wing government, formally presented yesterday.

A former construction worker who has soared to the top of Israel's political establishment, the articulate, silver-maned Mr. Levy - the charismatic leader of Israeli's conservative Sephardic (non-European) community - is one reason why the political right has gained dominance in Israel.

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Like Yitzhak Shamir, the prime minister he serves, Levy holds as an article of faith the right of Jews to settle in Israel's two occupied territories, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Like Mr. Shamir, he rejects the notion, embodied in two key United Nations resolutions, that Israel should relinquish land as the price for gaining peace with its Arab neighbors.

But as foreign minister, Levy is likely to find that advancing such policies will leave Israel increasingly isolated.

``The new government's rejectionist policies will result in political and economic isolation, with [Soviet] immigration decreasing as a result and security pressures increasing,'' predicts a commentator in Haaretz, Israel's leading daily.

Following one of the most acrimonious sessions in its history, the 120-member Israeli Knesset (parliament) approved the Likud-led government by a slim 62-member majority. Backed by nine right-wing factions, religious parties, and independent parliamentarians, it will be the most conservative in Israel's 42-year history.

The government remains committed to a peace initiative, tabled by Shamir more than a year ago, which calls for Palestinian elections leading to negotiations on the future status of the territories.

But policy guidelines approved on Monday are silent on a US formula for carrying out the plan. The new government also rejects the direct or indirect participation of the Palestine Liberation Organization or residents of Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, concessions regarded by Palestinians, the US, and even many Israelis as indispensable to getting the peace process off the ground.

Clues as to how Levy will square this diplomatic circle and keep peace hopes alive are contradictory.

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As one of Likud's three ``constraints'' ministers in the last government, Levy played a key role in preventing Shamir from accepting the US compromise plan.

As housing minister, he was also behind a move by Jewish extremists to settle in the Christian quarter of Jerusalem's old city, which led to international condemnation of Israel.

Levy has also promoted Jewish settlement in the territories, despite strong US opposition and hints from Moscow that it might halt the immigration of Soviet Jews to Israel in response.

Despite his reputation as a right-wing ideologue, observers say Israel's new foreign minister has also demonstrated considerable pragmatism over the years.

They point out that Levy backed the 1979 Camp David peace treaty with Egypt, voted for Israel's controversial pullout from the Sinai Peninsula, criticized Defense Minister Ariel Sharon's conduct of Israel's war in Lebanon, and, in the end, cast the decisive vote that brought Israeli troops home from Lebanon in 1985.

Defenders also argue that Levy's alliance with ``constraints'' ministers Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Modai was largely a marriage of convenience designed to prevent Shamir from handing the leadership of Likud to Moshe Arens, Israel's defense minister.

``Once he comes to the foreign office, he will act in a different way than he appears right now as one of the constraints leaders,'' says Arye Naor, who was Cabinet secretary in the Likud government of Menachem Begin. ``He will not change his opinion regarding settlements but he will have other priorities. If the [Bush] administration plays it cool, it will be able to find a good friend in Mr. Levy, because he very much wants to succeed.''

``The views of people are conditioned by reality,'' adds Mr. Naor. ``They see things differently when they are really in power than when they are just ministers in a huge Cabinet.''

Another Israeli commentator describes Levy as ``an Israeli [James] Baker: a man who rose in domestic politics, with no foreign policy experience, who even now keeps one eye firmly fixed on the domestic scene as he pursues foreign policy.''

``Maybe they'll find a common language, since they both have the same political instincts,'' says Daniel Elazar, director of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, comparing Levy and US Secretary of State Baker.

Analysts say Levy will be handicapped by inexperience in foreign policy and by the fact that he does not speak the language of his country's two main benefactors: the US government and the US Jewish community. Fluent in Hebrew, Spanish, Arabic, and French, Levy is now taking English lessons.

``He has grown to fill every job he has reached,'' says an admiring analyst with Likud connections. ``But this is a big jump for him away from the domestic things he does well.''

Levy's position will also be threatened by dominant Cabinet figures like Housing Minister Sharon, who is powerfully positioned to influence foreign policy.

Levy's main problem will be finding some way to reconcile the views of the US with those of right-wing politicians in Israel, some of whom not only reject peace talks but actually advocate the ``transfer'' of Palestinians out of the West Bank.

``The job of being a diplomat is going to be unbearable under Levy,'' says an analyst, noting that Israeli diplomats will spend most of their time trying to explain and justify the controversial acts of the country's new government.

A recent report by Hebrew University's Davis Institute for International Relations predicts that the policies of a narrow, Likud-led government could exacerbate a long-term weakening of relations between the US and Israel.

The result could be more US pressure for concessions on the peace process, less US aid, and greater isolation in international forums, the report says.

``Israel might find itself in a position like that of South Africa before the change in that country's policy, but without South Africa's economic strength,'' the report concludes.

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