JERUSALEM — Knesset member David Levy's threat to break up the opposition Likud Party could dramatically reshape Israel's political landscape.
The Likud, Israel's leading right-of-center opposition party, is in the throes of a dramatic and damaging split, with Levy on the verge of announcing the creation of a breakaway party.
"We have been pushed out," was the former foreign minister's bitter comment Monday night, after the Likud Central Committee overwhelmingly endorsed party chairman Benjamin Netanyahu's proposals for electing its candidates for the Knesset list in the 1996 elections.
Levy and his camp claimed that the chairman's plans were specifically designed to maximize the Netanyahu camp's hold on the party and to squeeze out Levy supporters from winning Knesset seats in next year's national elections.
The plan as approved calls for the outright election of Knesset candidates in a Likud primary, as opposed to Levy's preference for a system that would guarantee a minimum number of slots for minorities.
Despite this week's angry words — the latest in Levy's ongoing battle with arch-rival Netanyahu — it remains unclear whether Levy will follow through and launch his own party.
On June 18, much of that guesswork could be cleared up, when Levy is scheduled to lay out his detailed plans at a mass meeting for his followers from across the country.
If indeed Levy does bolt from Likud, it is not clear what impact such a move would have on the outcome of the 1996 elections.
For the first time next year, Israelis will hold direct elections for prime minister.
And even though recent polls indicate that Netanyahu would defeat Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Labor in those elections, a survey released last Friday suggested that Netanyahu would lose to Rabin if Levy seceded from Likud.
But even if Levy does quit the Likud, he could decide to do nothing to help turn out the vote for Likud among his supporters, most of whom come from a Sephardic, working-class background and whose votes would be crucial to Netanyahu's victory.
This week's threats from Levy are not the first time he has played the game of brinkmanship with Netanyahu.
Similar complaints of exclusion from the Levy camp in the wake of Likud's internal elections in 1991 nearly resulted in a party split then.
Indeed, a leading political columnist, Hanna Kim of the Israeli daily newspaper Ha'aretz, dubbed the present rift a "late divorce," linking the earlier conflict to the current hostilities.
Levy, preferring to keep his tactical plans close to his chest, stopped short of announcing his immediate secession from the party this week.
As a result, key Netanyahu supporters maintained that this left space for an 11th-hour compromise.
But many observers predicted the die is cast: The split is a fact of political life, and what remains now is to see what sort of political strength Levy can gather around his projected new party.
Part of Levy's tactical problems have to do with his status in the current Knesset.
Because of the drubbing his camp took in Likud's 1991 internal elections, most of Levy's close lieutenants failed to make it into the current Knesset.
In fact, he can only count on one serving Knesset member, Dan Tichon, to break away with him from the present Likud faction.
But under Knesset rules, a breakaway faction needs the support of at least one-third of the members of the mother party in order to be entitled to state financing.
Levy's followers are especially strong on the municipal level. A significant number of mayors, particularly of development towns in the Negev and Galilee, number themselves among his loyalists and would see themselves as leaders of a new party that he led.
Other possible allies include disgruntled Likud liberals such as Moshe Nissim, who was also a senior minister in past Likud governments.
A new, Levy-led party would presumably adopt a rightist platform — though a more moderate one than the Likud's.
Levy has long been regarded as a voice of moderation within the Likud, and his record as a minister over the years reflects this assessment.
On the eve of the September 1982 massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon, for example, Levy was alone among the Cabinet ministers to urge that the Israel Defense Force take control of areas held by the Lebanese Christians, who carried out the massacre.
And in 1984, serving as part of a Likud-Labor unity government, Levy alone among the Likud ministers supported the then-Labor premier, Shimon Peres, and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin in their plans to withdraw from Lebanon.
But Levy has had hawkish periods, too — as when, together with Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Moda'i, he formed a hard-line caucus in opposition to the then-Likud leader, Yitzhak Shamir.
Shamir, still a Knesset member although barely active, was present among the approximately 2,000 delegates at the Likud Central Committee Monday night. And he was visibly angered by the demonstrative shouting from Levy's supporters.
Shamir repeatedly has urged his successor at Likud's helm, Netanyahu, to force Levy out of the movement.
Shamir's position is based on an assessment that even though Levy has undeniable popularity, especially in the smaller towns and poorer suburbs, Likud voters will "get used to" his loss in the months ahead and will flock back to the mother party when the Knesset elections are held next year.
This view, which belittles the impact of a Levy secession, also holds that if Levy puts himself forward as a prime ministerial candidate, Netanyahu and Rabin will easily brush him aside.
But Levy stalwarts maintain that a Levy candidacy could force the two main contenders into a second-round runoff, because under the new election law, a candidate needs at least 50 percent of the vote to win on the first ballot.
This leverage, they say, would give Levy's new party strength in pre- and post-election negotiations with both of the major blocs.
Both views, however, suffer from the same weakness: They attempt to forecast uncertain scenarios onto an electoral system that is itself new and untried.
Because Israel has never held direct elections for prime minister before, the relation between that vote and the simultaneous but separate vote for the Knesset lists is the subject of intense speculation. It has prompted some second thoughts among both politicians and academics who originally advocated the reform.
For now, the imminent evolution of a new force in the center of Israeli politics will only contribute to the speculation — and some confusion — that envelops Jerusalem as it gears up for a long, complex political campaign.