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A Nation is Stunned: Begin Announces He Intends to Resign; Efforts Under Way to Convince Him to Rema

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In a move that shocked the Cabinet and stunned the nation Premier Menachem Begin announced today that he intends to resign. He made the announcement at the end of a relatively brief Cabinet session. Likud leaders and spokesmen appeared dumbfounded by this unexpected development.

Begin surprised the ministers at the end of the Cabinet session when he asked to make a “personal statement.” He declared: “I came to the Cabinet session this morning to tell you about my intention to resign. This announcement has nothing to do with today’s session or with other sessions that took place recently. The reason for my resignation is personal.” The other sessions he was referring to were those dealing with the government’s new economic austerity budget.

MINISTERS ARE VISIBLY MOVED

The ministers were visibly moved. Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shomir reportedly was trembling when he told Begin: “We have followed you through thick and thin. Everything you had asked for, we did — and we shall do.” Other ministers spoke about Begin’s special place in the State of Israel and among the Jewish people. The ministers enumerated the achievements of the present government, and added: “There is more to do.”

The ministers told Begin that he was the only person who could rule the country at this time. But Begin reportedly made no commitments. “I will consider your stand, but I do not promise anything,” he reportedly told the ministers. According to one report. Begin told the ministers after the Cabinet session: “I do not feel I function the way a person who holds a job as responsible as mine should function.”

Begin did not indicate when he would submit his resignation to the President — which by law is mandatory to make the resignation legally binding. The Premier agreed to meet with the leaders of all the parties that comprise the Likud coalition tomorrow morning before making any further announcements.

DECISION IS NOT SEEN AS SUDDEN

Begin’s associates said today that his decision was not sudden, but was formed gradually within the past few months. The first substantial indication that “something was going on” was Begin’s surprise decision to cancel a visit to Washington to meet with Reagan last month for “personal reasons.” It was also recalled that Begin had declared a long time ago that he would resign at the age of 70. His 70th birthday took place several weeks ago.

Since the death of his wife, Aliza, last November, Begin has been in a state of depression and has gradually tapered off involving himself in day-to-day activities. He has spoken out less frequently in public, and when he has done so, he has appeared tired and withdrawn.

The Premier is also known to be depressed over the stalemate in Lebanon and the continuing toll of dead and wounded Israeli soldiers there. He has also been buffeted by the mounting economic crisis and the growing animosity between the Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities. In addition, he is known to be disheartened by the Reagan Administration’s persistent criticism of his government’s West Bank settlement policy.

REAGAN AGAIN RAPS WEST BANK SETTLEMENTS

Only yesterday, President Reagan, in his regular Saturday address to the American people, reaffirmed that Israel’s West Bank settlement policy posed “an obstacle to peace” in the Middle East. In his address, delivered from his ranch house near Santa Barbara, Calif., Reagan declared that “the future of these settlements can only be dealt with through direct negotiations between the parties to the conflict. The sooner these negotiations begin, the greater the chance for a solution.”

Reagan also made it clear that he feels his Mideast peace initiative, which he offered last year and which has been viewed in diplomatic circles here and abroad as having failed, “is definitely alive and available to those parties willing to sit down together and talk peace.”

That initiative, rejected by Israel, called for negotiations involving Israel and Jordan and leading to the eventual establishment of an autonomous Palestinian entity in the West Bank in association with Jordan. The initiative, which also criticized the West Bank settlements, was considered moribund since Jordan refused to participate last April.

CONSEQUENCES OF RESIGNATION

Shortly after the Cabinet meeting today, Cabinet Secretary Dan Meridor issued a statement which said: “At the Cabinet meeting today, after discussion of several issues, the Premier informed the Cabinet of his intention to resign from office. After the announcement of the Premier, all the ministers asked the Prime Minister to retract his announcement, and stay in office.”

Legally, the resignation of the Premier — once it is submitted officially to the President — is at the same time the resignation of the entire government. From that moment on, the government is considered a care-taker government. Although such a government is by nature transitory, it is politically stronger in that it cannot be toppled by a vote of no confidence, nor can any minister resign. A care-taker government remains in power until it is replaced by another government.

A new government can be formed by one of two ways: the President can ask any Knesset member, including Begin, to try and form a new coalition; or the Knesset can pass a law calling for new elections. Traditionally, the President has asked a representative of the largest party in the Knesset to form the coalition.

Presently it is the Labor Alignment which, since the last elections, has been enlarged by two defectors from the Likud. But given the general disarray of the Alignment and its lack of a clear program on vital issues, it is not clear that the Alignment could actually form an alternative coalition.

This makes the option of new elections a greater possibility. It is assumed that if Begin decides on new elections he could rally sufficient support in the Knes set to pass a law calling for new and early elections. Begin’s announcement of his intention to resign did not make it clear whether he would remain politically active after he leaves office.

NO CLEAR SIGN OF REVERSING RESIGNATION DECISION

Sources close to Begin said today that he would not go back on his decision. Begin left the Premier’s office shortly after the Cabinet session and drove off to his residence. He made no statement and would answer no questions.

The assumption that Begin’s decision was final was buttressed by Science Minister Yuval Neeman of Tehiya. He told reporters that Begin’s move was motivated by “an unexpected personal reason” and therefore he would not reconsider his move. All efforts to persuade him to remain in office would be useless, Neeman said. He did not explain what the “unexpected personal reason” was.

However, Education Minister Zevulum Hammer expressed the hope that Begin would reconsider. He said the National Religious Party, of which Hammer is one of the leaders, would continue its partnership with Likud even if Begin resigns. But he did not rule out a future partnership with the Alignment.

Deputy Foreign Minister Yehuda Ben Meir, also of the NRP, said: “Whatever happens, our party will remain loyal to the partnership with Likud, because this is the mandate which it received from its electors.”

OUTLOOK FOR THE LABOR ALIGNMENT

Labor Party leaders meeting in Tel Aviv said they would watch the situation closely and try to weigh the political options ahead. Because of the number of question marks surrounding Begin’s next steps, Labor Party leaders said they would refrain from making any further immediate public statements, until further consultations which were to begin this evening between party leader Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, Haim Barlev and Victor Shemtov of Mapam, an Alignment partner.

The most likely group for any immediate partnership with the Alignment would be the three-member Tami Knesset faction. It was Tami’s threat last week to leave the government because of its discontent with the Finance Ministry’s latest economic cutback package that hung heavily over the Cabinet today. In fact, Tami leader Aharon Uzan, who is also Labor and Social Affairs Minister, said he did not attend today’s Cabinet session because he anticipated Begin’s resignation and he did not want to be blamed for it.

The crisis with Tami might very well have sparked Begin’s decision. It is possible — although there is no clear evidence — that Begin saw no way out of that crisis. Rather than have a three-member Knesset faction cause his government’s fall by reducing its present majority to 61 members in the 120-member parliament, Begin might have decided to create a situation whereby Tami could be out maneuvered.

Even if Tami resigns from the government and becomes an Alignment partner in a new coalition, and even assuming that Shinui, with its two Knesset members, would join an Alignment-led government, such a government would have only 55 Knesset seats. The Communist Party (Hadash) could promise to be a silent partner of the Alignment, thus giving an Alignment-led government 59 Knesset seats but still two seats short of the necessary minimum of 61 votes in the parliament.

Thus, the political reality today seemed to be that if Begin resigned, this would probably lead to new elections, with a Begin-led caretaker government ruling until those elections were held. If no majority is found in the Knesset for early elections, such a caretaker would rule until the next scheduled elections, at the end of 1985.

DEMONSTRATION FOR AND AGAINST RESIGNATION

The report on Begin’s action instantly prompted pro and anti demonstrations. A gathering in support of the Premier, urging him not to resign, developed this afternoon outside Begin’s residence in Jerusalem’s Talbiye quarter. Peace Now demonstrators assembled, urging Begin to stick to his planned resignation. Police created a separation zone between the two groups of demonstrators to avoid clashes between them.

According to one report, a movement of “Citizens for Begin” was quickly formed, which organized free transportation to Jerusalem to demonstrate solidarity with the Premier.

SOME OF THE HEIRS APPARENT

Political observers speculated that if Begin does quit political life, the internal struggle within Begin’s Herut party could intensify. The possible heirs are Foreign Minister Shamir, Deputy Premier David Levy, Defense Minister Moshe Arens and Finance Minister Yorom Aridor. The observers said one public figure — former Defense Minister Ariel Sharon — should not be ruled out of consideration.

Asked about that possibility in a radio interview today, Sharon said, “The Herut movement always had free competition and elections.” If Begin sticks to his resignation, Sharon said, he hoped Begin would “lead Likud in the election campaign.” He said Likud would win a major victory if an election took place.

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