Split threatens to hit Likud poll chances

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in Jerusalem

A split in the right-wing Likud party may damage its chances of winning the election next year. David Levy, a senior figure, says the party leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, is marginalising him and leaving him no alternative but to leave the party.

Mr Levy's strength is his support among Sephardic Jews who migrated from the Arab world, particularly those from Morocco. Mr Netanyahu is apparently calculating that a split would not do him much damage and would rid him of a quarrelsome opponent. But a poll yesterday shows that 11 per cent of Israelis say they would vote for Mr Levy if he formed his own party, enough to lose Likud a closely fought election or rob Mr Netanyahu of the premiership, which will be elected separately in future.

Evidence of Mr Levy's ability to win votes may lead to Mr Netanyahu backing off at the last minute. The Likud leader is not as comfortably ahead of Labour as he was a couple of months ago. A poll in Yediot Aharanot yesterday placed him level with the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, on 39 per cent. No suicide bombs - the main reason for the government's unpopularity - have gone off in Israel since January and Mr Netanyahu was badly outmanoeuvred in the Knesset last month in the controversy over land confiscation in Jerusalem.

Mr Levy says he may leave Likud as early as next Tuesday. In an angry statement he said Mr Netanyahu's supporters had sent out leaflets to Likud activists calling him "a friend of [Foreign Minister] Shimon Peres". Mr Levy would not bring many members of the Knesset out of the party with him, but the Yediot poll indicates he would secure five seats in an election to the 120-seat parliament. In Israel's coalition politics that is enough to hold the balance of power.

On the other hand other Likud leaders may think they have been blackmailed long enough by Mr Levy. A building worker and trade union organiser, Mr Levy played a key role in 1977 in winning Sephardim support for Likud and its leader Menachem Begin, which ended Labour's long rule. He has been vocally resentful that he has been bypassed for the premiership ever since. Before the 1992 election he made a damaging attack on other Likud leaders for regarding him and his supporters as monkeys "just down from the trees".

Mr Levy's relationship with Mr Netanyahu has been particularly venomous. The new Likud is moving closer to an Israeli version of the Republican party in the US and away from the constituency from which Mr Levy comes.

Soon after Mr Netanyahu took over as Likud leader he accused Mr Levy of threatening to make public a video about his sex life. The police decided this was untrue and Mr Netanyahu eventually apologised but the men were not on speaking terms for months.

The political sniping between the Netanyahu and Levy camps is good news for Labour, though the polls still show it would lose the next election. It might also be damaged by Russian Jewish immigrants defecting to a new immigrants' party and the formation of a new party by Labour members who do not want to give back the Golan Heights to Syria.

Labour's old ally, the religious party Shas is also increasingly aligned with Likud, a trend likely to increase because Shas thinks some of its support might go to a new party led by Mr Levy.