Finance Minister Yigael Hurvitz resigned from the Israeli Cabinet today, virtually assuring the collapse of Prime Minister Menachem Begin's government.
After nearly eight hours of debate in which he fruitlessly sought compromise in a dispute over Israeli's deteriorating economy, Begin announced through a spokesman that the Cabinet will meet again Monday to discuss the "political implications" of Hurvitz's resignation.
Because Hurvitz will take with him the three votes of the parliamentary Rafi faction, thus destroying Begin's current paper-thin Likud coalition majority, the only practical option that appeared available to the prime minister was to submit a motion to dissolve parliament and schedule national elections.
With the opposition Labor Party rated a likely winner in public opinion polls, the possibility of elections raised new questions about the future course of the U.S.-sponsored Camp David negotiations for Palestinian autonomy on the West Bank and in Gaza. Coupled with the advent of a new administration in the United States, any elections in Israel would in the assessment of most observers result in new delays for the long-stalled talks while Israel was taken up in political campaigning and Washington in defining its policies.
The Cabinet ministers appeared unanimous tonight on the inevitability of the collapse of the government. Justice Minister Moshe Nissim said, "I think this can be assumed." Health Minister Eliezer Shostak declared, "Of course the government will [fall]. One has to go to early elections, and I think this will be the opinion of the prime minister."
The Labor Party said today it will give the government until Wednesday to dissolve the parliament, or Knesset, before it submits such a motion itself.
Begin theoretically could attempt to patch together a slim Likud majority by recruiting into the coalition some of the Knesset's many one-member factions in exchange for political promises. But the prime minister has indicated that he would rather initiate an "honorable" end to his government and take his chances on a new election.
If Begin moves to dissolve the Knesset, as expected, elections would be held most likely in mid-June, five months before his four-year term is scheduled to expire. The Labor Party is seeking to advance the election to less than three months from now.
Hurvitz, who last year was charged by the Cabinet with the task of instituting stringent anti-inflation measures to salvage Israel's steadily worsening economy, said he was unable to accept a compromise on a special study commission's recommendation to increase the salaries of public school teachers by 30 to 60 percent.
"We are determined not to break the wage front -- not even to start negotiations on the subject," Hurvitz said.
He has warned that the teachers' wage hikes could trigger a wave of similar demands in other sectors of Israel's economy and lead to labor bargaining chaos throughout the country.
Cabinet secretary Aryeh Naor said the Cabinet voted 11 to 2, with two abstentions, to accept the study commission's wage recommendations "in principle" and start negotiating with the teachers. Voting against the Cabinet majority were Labor Minister Israel Katz and Deputy Prime Minister Yigael Yadin.
Education Minister Zevulun Hammer had threatened to quit the Cabinet if his position were not upheld. Hammer would have taken with him the 12 Knesset members of the National Religious Party, thereby dooming Begin's Likud coalition. Cabinet sources said Begin sought to resolve the impasse by proposing approval of the teachers' raises, but postponing negotiations for payment. "But in the end it did not work," Naor said.
Under Israeli law, Hurvitz has 48 hours to withdraw his resignation, although Naor said there would be no attempt to dissuade him from remaining out of the government. Is was unclear tonight whether Begin would wait the 48 hours before submitting a motion to dissolve the Knesset.
In recent days, Begin has told his closest aides that if Hurvitz resigned, he would inititate steps to hold elections in June or July, thereby pushing Likud's rule past the four-year mark. Begin, who was elected on May 17, 1977, and installed in office a month later, would be the first prime minister in Israel's history to serve a full, uninterrupted four years.
However, Labor Party leader Shimon Peres said tonight that "the honor of the state is more important than the honor of the government," and that he would press for elections in less than three months.