Just five months ago, in the sweet flush of euphoria after the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, Israel's first non-Labor Party prime minister, Menachem Begin, was sorely tempted to call early elections and solidify his political base. But he resisted the temptations, he said, so as not to capitalize on his historic diplomatic achievement.
"No sir, not at all. I am not a person to be jumping at opportunity . . . We don't want to cash in, to call people to the polls," Begin told an interviewer, obviously relishing the moment of public selflessness.
Now, amid a rising torrent of criticism that his right-wing Likud government has become paralyzed by indecision and his fractious Cabinet rent with divisions, Begin is again resisting the idea of early elections. But he is enjoying it less.
Confronted with public opinion polls that tell of his government's plummeting popularity, Begin, in a televised message for the Jewish New Year, said somewhat defensively, "Are we expected to call early elections because so many people . . . answer a [poll] question a certain way? Only the Knesset [parliament] can legislate early elections."
Halfway through his first five-year term of office, Begin and his governing party appear to be gripped by a dispirited mood that could not be envisioned during the heady, self-congratulating days of Camp David. More importantly, growing numbers of Israelis have recognized the sense of despair and aimlessness that seems to have permeated the government, and they are beginning to look beyond their 66-year-old prime minister for an end to it.
Beset by frightening economic problems -- including 100 percent annual inflation -- and hounded by persistent, albeit often inaccurate, reports of his deteriorating health, Begin seems to represent a malaise that has spread through his Cabinet and, indeed, among many of Israel's 3.5 million inhabitants.
Conservative Israelis, who easily identify with Begin's ultranationalism and mystical approach to occupying Arab territory conquered 12 years ago, are beginning to wonder which will collapse first -- the government or the ponderous negotiations on the nagging Palestinian question.
Moderates and liberals, troubled also by Israel's growing sense of isolation in the world and embittered by the Likud government's lack of accomplishment on social and economic needs, are raising disturbing questions about whether Israeli society has drifted irretrievably from the ideals that accompanied the founding of the Jewish state.
If Begin is bothered by others' perceptions of a government adrift and incapable of reaching beyond its one supreme accomplishment -- peace with Egypt -- he does not show it. He acknowledges only that harmony is not the best-known Israeli trait.
But even for Israel, where free-wheeling and raucous politics is a carefully guarded tradition, the antics of Begin's Cabinet ministers are unprecedented. Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan has referred to the Cabinet as a "walking corpse," but some concerned government officials privately say they wish it were as docile as that.
"Three people are running this country: Begin, Dayan and Begin's personal secretary. The rest are running off in their own directions, satisfying their own egos and causing as much damage as they can," said one dejected aide of the prime minister last week.
In Begin's defense, it can be said that his constant attention to foreign policy has left little time to devote to Israel's complicated domestic problems, and that his mild stroke of eight weeks ago -- despite his denials -- probably made an increased work load impossible.But whatever the reasons, the disarray has been spreading rapidly.
Polarization in the Cabinet over volatile issues that touch on matters no less important than the very concept of the Jewish state has reached the point where a major reshuffle of the government seems inevitible.
Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon, whose zealousness for building new civilian settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip exceeds even Begin's, has substituted political accusation for political debate, impugning the patriotism of his critics and rhetorically marshaling "true" Zionists against what he perceives as "anti-Zionists" and "fifth columnists."
In one recent heated exchange with Deputy Prime Minister Yigael Yadin over two new West Bank outposts, Sharon shouted in a meeting, "I'll strip you naked and lay you on the Cabinet table!"
Begin, who appears at times to have lost control of the Cabinet sessions, reportedly pleaded for restraint and then ordered the outburst deleted from the Cabinet minutes.
Also characterizing the lack of coordination among the ministers was the threat last month by Energy Minister Yitzhak Modai that Israel might postpone its withdrawal from the Alma oil fields in the Sinai Peninsula if Egypt did not agree to sell 2 million tons of oil 40,000 barrels a day to Israel annually. The public threat, made on the radio, amounted to a major foreign policy shift, but it was never discussed with Begin or Dayan, according to Cabinet sources.
Soon afterward, Israelis watched their foreign minister disclose on television that he did not consult with Begin before meeting in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with Palestine Liberation Organization supporters.
If Begin was embarrassed by the episode, particularly in light of the furor over former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young's meeting with PLO representative Zehdi Terzi, he did not let it show.
The prime minister himself has shown signs of precipitous behavior, such as when he signed an agreement in August allowing Jewish Agency Chairman Areyh Dulzin to abolish the problem-riddled Immigrant Absorption Ministry and replace it with a new quasi-public Immigration and Absorption Authority. Apparently in hopes of avoiding a confrontation with Immigrant Absorption Minister David Levy, a powerful force in the right-wing Herut Party, Begin then backed off the pledge.
Not surprisingly much of the chorus of criticism against Begin's government and the claims of a crisis in leadership are being directed by the opposition Labor alignment, which was in power for 29 years from the founding of the state until 1977, and which would like to return.
According to Labor Knesset member Yigael Allon, "The government is paralyzed, and I'm not arguing now about their policies, which are wrong in most cases. Even if you judge their actions against their own policies, it's a paralyzed, nonfunctioning government."
Even though the Labor Party leaders are calling for new elections, it would be something of an embarrassment to them if it happened. The opposition alignment is in disarray because of rivalries among factions supporting the official opposition leader Shimon Peres, and splinter groups that support former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Allon, the former foreign minister.
Begin could force new elections by resigning and then accepting control of a caretaker government pending a ballot, but the prime minister has rejected the notion, mentioning from time to time that he might step down in 1982, after the 1981 elections.
A more logical move, some analysts say, would be a major reshuffle of the Cabinet, an action Begin also says he has ruled out.
Treasury Secretary Simcha Ehrlich, noting that the Likud coalition majority has dropped from 77 to 65 members in the Knesset, suggested Begin is fearful that Cabinet changes would trigger coalition defections and that the government would collapse.
There has been talk in the Liberal Party, which is widely blamed for Israel's soaring inflation because of Ehrlich's stewardship of the treasury, of pulling out of the coalition. The liberals have four seats in the Cabinet.
Moreover, Yadin's already splintered Democratic Movement party has become increasingly alienated over the settlements isue, and at least two of its seven Knesset members are said to be thinking about quitting the Likud coalition.
Already, the conservative La'am faction has left the government over the Egyptian-Israeli treaty and the Greater Israel Movement withdrew along with Herut Party member Geula Cohen, leaving the Likud's position weakened.
Begin's closest advisers, however, scoff at reports of a crumbling government and characterizations of a prime minister who has lost his grip.
Yehiel Kadishai, Begin's aide de camp who almost constantly is at the prime minister's side, said the criticism is based on a "false image" of Begin that has persisted for years.
"He has always been portrayed as an iron-fisted leader, the authoritarian head of a one-man party. That's not true. I've known him for 40 years, and he's always encouraged give-and-take in meetings. But they [the critics] compare what is happening with the image and say there has been deterioration," said Kadishai.
He called the reports of Begin's loss of control "an organized campaign by political opponents, helped by a network of a few journalists. It's not innocent."
For his part, Begin gives the impression that he believes nothing is amiss in his government that cannot be corrected by a return to the cooperation and mutual respect of Israel's first days as a state.
The question remains of how much further the besieged Likud government will fall in popularity before its leader is forced to make major changes in it.