David Levy: Foreign Minister Outside America

It is not surprising that new Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would make his first overseas trip to the United States. It should also come as no surprise that he acts as Israel’s Foreign Minister to the United States and leaves the rest of the world to the nominal Foreign Minister, David Levy. This is the first of what I expect to be many similarities between Netanyahu’s approach and that of the late Yitzhak Rabin, who also put himself in charge of U.S.-Israel relations.

Netanyahu will cut Levy out of the policy loop with America for at least four reasons. The first is that Netanyahu, like Rabin, believes he understands America better than anyone else in Israel. While that may not have been the case with Rabin, whose main direct experience here was for a short time as Ambassador, Netanyahu lived here, went to school here and served in more than one diplomatic post here.

A second reason is that the U.S.-Israel relationship is unquestionably the most important bilateral alliance. Netanyahu wants to keep his hands directly on the making of policy with its principal ally. This was one explanation for Rabin’s desire to restrict Shimon Peres to Europe when he was Foreign Minister.

It is not nice to say, but the truth is a third reason is Levy’s inability to speak English fluently. Plenty of other nations send representatives here who communicate in their native language, but Netanyahu understands this would be a mistake in the United States, because it is vital for Israel’s representative to articulate the nation’s policies to the media and directly to the American public. This is also why Netanyahu is likely to pick an ambassador who speaks English, such as Zalman Shoval or Moshe Arens.

Finally, like Rabin, Netanyahu sees controlling the policy with the United States as a means of preventing his political rivals from upstaging him.

Though his role will be circumscribed, Americans can still expect to see a lot of David Levy in the next four years. Despite having served in the post once before, Levy is still relatively unknown here, so it is worth getting to know a little more about him.

Levy was born in Morocco in 1938 and immigrated with his family to Israel in 1957. His first jobs were planting trees for the Jewish National Fund. He also picked cotton on a kibbutz, where he organized a strike protesting the dirty drinking water supplied to laborers. This was his first political act.

In 1965, Levy won his first election, to Beit Shean’s Local Council. He quit his job as a construction worker, even though the pay was higher, to devote all his energy to the Council. Levy worked his way through the political ranks, joining Menachem Begin’s Herut Party and winning his first Knesset seat in 1969. When Begin became Prime Minister, Levy served as Minister of Absorption, then Housing and ultimately Deputy Premier.

As Housing Minister, Levy made his first real mark on the national stage. For example, he took steps to change the structure of housing loans to make it possible for eligible persons to get government help toward buying an apartment. While pushing for better housing, Levy also criticized those who turned to crime and violence in depressed areas.

Levy was considered a moderate within the Likud because of his opposition to Ariel Sharon’s conduct of the Lebanon war. This is ironic today given his threat to resign from Netanyahu’s cabinet if Sharon was not given a ministry portfolio.

During the years of the unity government, Levy developed a reputation as a hawk because he advised Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to take a tough line in peace negotiations. He did not make a significant impression on Americans during his last stint as Foreign Minister because he was not the country’s principal spokesman. Moreover, the antagonism of the Bush Administration was directed at Shamir’s policies and Shamir himself; consequently, Levy’s image was not really tarnished by the public division that emerged between the United States and Israel.

Since Netanyahu will be calling the shots, Levy will again be viewed primarily as the messenger. Should any disputes arise, he will probably escape blame. That’s the good news for him. The bad news is he won’t get credit for any of the successes that might be achieved in advancing the U.S.-Israel relationship.