JERUSALEM (Sep. 15)
Menachem Begin offically resigned as Prime Minister Thursday. His formal letter of resignation was delivered to President Chaim Herzog by Cabinet Secretary Dan Meridor.
A spokesman for Begin told reporters that the 70-year-old Israeli leader has a facial rash and, being unable to shave, did not want to appear before the President. But speculation was rife that Begin, who has not left his home for over a week, is seriously ill.
His formal act of resignation came just 19 days after he stunned Israelis and much of the world with the announcement that he would step down. His delay in carrying out his intentions, even after Likud elected Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir to replace him as party leader on September I and after Shamir this week obtained the agreement of the coalition parties to support him as the next Prime Minister, raised questions of constitutional propriety.
Attorney General Yitzhak Zamir issued a legal opinion Tuesday night suggesting that the “acceptable”interval between announcement and formalization of Begin’s resignation had elapsed. That apparently prompted Begin to act today, although aides said he would have preferred to wait until his physical condition allowed him to visit the President.
PROCESS OF FORMING A NEW GOVERNMENT TO BEGIN
The media recorded for posterity Herzog’s receipt of Begin’s letter. He opened and read it before scores of reporters and cameramen representing Israeli and world-wide news organizations.
Herzog must now proceed with the constitutional process which requires him to consult with the major political parties and ask the leader of one of them to form a new government. With Begin’s resignation, his government automatically resigns but continues to function as a caretaker regime until the new government is formed and wins a vote of confidence in the Knesset.
Herzog is expected to begin the process immediately after Yom Kippur. Likud is not the largest party in the Knesset. It holds 46 seats to 50 of the Labor Alignment. But on Monday, after more than a week of intensive negotiations and hard bargaining it obtained written agreements from all of the partners in the outgoing coalition — the National Religious Party, Aguda Israel, Tami and Tehiya — to participate in a new Likud regime headed by Shamir. The new government would command 64 Knesset mandates, three more than the majority needed to govern.
This will be Likud’s argument in its talks with Herzog. But Labor MKs contend that their party, as the largest single faction in the Knesset, should be offered the opportunity to form a coalition. There have been reports this week — not denied by the parties involved — that Labor Party chairman Shimon Peres has been holding discussions with representatives of the outgoing coalition, notwithstanding their pledge to support Likud.
But Deputy Premier David Levy said on a television interview Wednesday that Likud is “not worried”.He noted that Israel is a “free country” and people could talk with whomever they pleased without generating concern or suspicion.
It was reported earlier that six members of Likud’s Liberal Party wing had conditioned their support for Shamir on his pledge to make a serious effort to draw the Labor Alignment into a national unity government. Three Labor MKs — Menachem Hacohen, Arik Nehamkin and Yehezkel Zakkai — all representing the moshav movement have expressed support for a national government.
But they insist that either it be headed by Labor or that Labor be given the key foreign affairs and defense portfolios within the framework of an agreed policy guideline. Under those conditions, they would support Shamir as Premier. But those conditions are hardly likely to be accepied by Likud.
Most political observers believe that Herzog will ask Shamir to form the next government the Shamir will approach to Labor to join but that efforts to form a united front will fail and Shamir will reconstitute the present coalition. Shamir has said that the government he heads will continue the policies laid down by the Begin government without changes of personnel, at least for the time being.
DISPUTE OVER TRANSFER OF PREMIER’S POWERS
Meanwhile, a dispute developed today over who will head the caretaker regime until the next government is established. Levy, who as Deputy Premier is officially second in command, told television viewers that with Begin ill, the Premier’s powers have been “transferred” to him “according to law.”
But that was hotly disputed by Justice Minister Moshe Nissim and by aides to Begin who say he is still discharging his duties as Prime Minister.
Nissim explained that under the law, if a Premier is incapable of discharging his duties, the Cabinet must appoint another minister to function in his stead. According to Nissim, Begin is not “incapable of discharging his duties,” the Cabinet has not named any one to replace him and therefore Levy’s claim is incorrect. Although Begin had asked Levy to chair the weekly Cabinet meeting last Sunday, that did not imply a “transfer” of power, Nissim said.
It remains to be seen, however, whether Begin will inform the Cabinet that he cannot head the interim regime. In that case, he may well recommend that Shamir, the Premier-designate, take over. A similar situation developed in 1977 when Premier Yitzhak Rabin resigned shortly before the Knesset elections and designated Shimon Peres rather than the then Deputy Premier Yigal Allon to replace him.
Concern, meanwhile, is mounting here over Begin’s mental and physical condition. Haaretz columnist Yoel Markus reported on Thursday that friends of Begin say he is no longer interested in life and some fear he is suicidal. There have been reports that Begin, never a man of robust physique, is hardly eating. has become thinner than ever. Begin’s physician, Dr. Mervyn Gottesman of Hadassah Hospital’s cardiac department, refuses to speak to reporters about his patient’s health. This is in keeping with medical ethics and can be waived only if Begin officially authorizes the doctor to discuss his condition.