JERUSALEM — One man is conspicuous in his absence from the Camp David peace summit—Israel's Foreign Minister David Levy.
The white-haired 62-year-old political veteran pointedly turned down Prime Minister Ehud Barak's invitation to the U.S. summit, accusing Palestinians of refusing to make the necessary compromises.
Political analysts agree there is a ploy behind any decision taken by this part-pragmatist, part-agitator. A butt of jokes for decades, a politician who swings left or right to meet every historic opportunity, he manages somehow to survive and thrive.
But he has said little in public about his decision, raising questions about his commitment to Barak, to his unstable coalition government and to any peace deal he concludes.
"David Levy has always had a very good sense of the way in which the domestic political winds are blowing," said Israeli political scientist Gerald Steinberg.
"If he is distancing himself from Barak and Camp David, that's a pretty good sign that he thinks that assuming there is an agreement, it will not get domestic support."
Opinion polls show most Israelis are behind Barak, and willing to accept compromises for peace.
But his coalition crumbled last week on the eve of his departure, and tens of thousands of Israelis took part in a protest against him in Tel Aviv Sunday.
The Moroccan-born Levy has never had a broad following but has found a niche in coalitions left and right because of his perceived ability to garner support from low-income Sephardic Jews—those with origins in Arab countries.
"He's a survivor," said a government official.
Levy has backed land-for-peace deals, but he has also imposed constraints. He stayed home from the groundbreaking 1991 Madrid peace conference with all of Israel's neighbors, sulking, his critics said, because then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir decided to lead the Israeli delegation in his place.
Levy suggests privately he did not go to Camp David for fear of embarrassing Barak or his host, U.S. President Bill Clinton.
"If I would go there and discover things that are unacceptable to me, I would make a scandal for the prime minister," one official quoted him as saying.
The sides are trying to work out a peace framework on the toughest issues of their 52-year-old conflict: borders, Jerusalem, Jewish settlers and Palestinian refugees.
Barak has said he needs and wants Levy by his side, even as tensions surfaced publicly for the first time last week.
In a sign of their relationship's complexity, the day Levy decided to stay home from the summit, he backed Barak in a tight no-confidence vote in parliament.
Relations have not always been easy between foreign and prime ministers in Israel.
"The foreign minister in Israel tends to be someone the prime minister wants to reward in terms of domestic politics while the prime minister keeps the tough war-and-peace issues and relations with the United States in his own hands," Steinberg said.
Critics complain Levy does more to help himself than the working-class majority he champions. They say he is not even suited to be foreign minister, given that he speaks no English, the language of Israel's guardian U.S. ally.
He and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright converse in French, the only language he speaks besides Hebrew.
The wisecracks about Levy stem from his tendency to personalize political moves, a sometimes anti-intellectual rhetoric and a rabble-rousing style of oratory.
In private conversations, Levy complains of the many negotiating channels through which he says Israel has been making concessions to the Palestinians—some of them secret and others public.
Critics say he is angry at being kept in the dark.
"It is not an ego issue," Levy said Sunday. "This is not an issue of accompanying—or entertainment. This is a very serious issue, and if I decided not to go, I have very serious reasons."
Levy worked his way up through the ranks of the rightist opposition Likud party, but left Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government in January 1998.
When Levy bolted, he likened Netanyahu's hard-line policies to an Israeli airliner going nowhere. He said Netanyahu neglected the poor.
Last year Levy joined forces with Barak, saying he believed the former army chief's left-center One Israel bloc cared for the underprivileged who are the bulk of Levy's constituency.
"Levy remains primarily a domestic politician and any diplomatic activities that he takes a strong stand on are almost always part of his domestic agenda," Steinberg said.