Jerusalem (Jul. 13)
Premier Menachem Begin gave the appearance today of being almost eager to hold new elections before the end of this year. He told reporters that if he failed to form a majority coalition government within 21 days, he would not ask for the 21 day extension allowed by law but would return his mandate to President Yitzhak Navon.
He predicted that if new elections were held in 5-6 months, Likud would emerge much stronger than it did from the June 30 elections when it won 48 Knesset mandates.
Begin accompanied his remarks by laying down tough terms to his probable coalition partners — the National Religious Party, Aguda Israel and the new Tami faction headed by Aharon Abu Hatzeira. Political observers saw this as a deliberate attempt to throw a scare into those parties, all of which did poorly at the polls and have reason to believe they would fare even worse in early elections.
WARNS AGUDA ON ‘WHO IS A JEW’ AMENDMENT
If Begin’s purpose was “arm twisting,” he succeeded judging from the immediate reactions of the religious parties. His strongest warning was aimed at the Aguda Israel. He said flatly that he would not “force” his Likud faction to vote for the controversial “Who is a Jew?” amendment to the Law of Return.
He said that if the Aguda insisted on such an undertaking, “I will tell them straight out: No, I cannot give it.” The Aguda “Council of Sages,” meeting here today, hinted that they would not give Begin an ultimatum on that issue.
The Aguda Israel, which won only four seats in the new Knesset, had been demanding an iron clad guarantee that the next Knesset would adopt the amendment defining a Jew as a person born of a Jewish mother or converted by an Orthodox rabbi “according to halacha.” Begin himself said only a few days ago that he personally supported the amendment because he regards conversion as a halachic issue.
Begin also said today that Tami, with three Knesset mandates, could expect only one Cabinet portfolio in the new government and to award it any more would be “political bribery.” Abu Hatzeira responded later by assuring Begin that his party would be “most flexible” in the coalition talks. As for the NRP, which will have six seats in the new Knesset–down six from the last one — Begin said it would get two Cabinet posts and no more.
NRP sources said later that it was not seeking more than two portfolios. The sources said the party would be content to have Yosef Burg retain the Interior Ministry and assume the Religious Affairs Ministry in addition and to have Zevulun Hammer retain the Education Ministry.
WILL TAKE CHANCES WITH NEW ELECTIONS
Begin said he hoped the wrangle between Tami and the NRP over the Religious Affairs Ministry, held by Abu Hatzeira in the outgoing government, “can be resolved.” But if Tami “is stubborn” and stays out of the coalition on that issue, he would not consider a Likud-NRP-Aguda minority regime which would command only 58 Knesset seats between them. Unless he has a majority of 61 seats, Begin said, he will take his chances with new elections.
If new elections are the only solution he would be “very pleased,” Begin said. “I will be in my element again, fighting an election campaign … I’m not 70 yet.” He said, however, that he expected a formal summons from President Navon on Wednesday to form a new government and that he would undertake the task immediately.