An over-whelming majority of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's Cabinet tgoday swung behind plans to dissolve parliament and hold new elections, but the formality of surrendering the coalition was postponed at least another day.
Begin appeared to be prolonging the expected collapse of his coalition in an apparent attempt to find a face-saving transition in which the government will appear to have made a free choice. He said his ministers will consult with their political factions in parliament before a bill is introduced to hold new elections.
Begin said that in agreeing to new elctions he was yielding to a "parliamentary reality."
Referring to today's Cabinet meeting, which followed last night's resignation of finance minister Yigael Hurvitz and the unraveling of the ruling Likud coalition, Begin said, "The discussion made it clear there is a tendency among a majority of ministers" to hold early elections. "Tonight we shall consult our friends and colleagues in the Knesset [parliment] and the decision will be practically taken during the week."
Asked if he was disappointed that he could not stay in office until his term ends in November, Begin, who took office in May 1977, replied, "No, I'm not disappointed at all. This is democracy. If one of the partners leaves it, then a new situation is created."
Before Hurvitz resigned, Begin had a narrow 61-to-59 margin in parliment, including three members of Hurvitz' Rafi faction.
Under Israel's one-house parliamentary system, the prime minister's governing ability depends on a majority in parliment, although it is possible to govern as a minority if the opposition refrains from bringing the government down by a vote of no-confidence.
There are various ways the government can be changed: by normal elections, held every four years; by early elections, called by parliment; by resignation of the prime minister and Cabinet and a no-confidence vote would both be followed by new elections.
In caucuses tonight, both Begin's Herut Party and the National Religious Party, which is part of the ruling Likud coalition, voted to postpone at least until Tuesday any decision on dissolving parliament. The National Religious Party said some of its 12 members of parliament favored putting off elections until November but Welfare Minister Israel Katz and Deputy Prime Minister Yiguael Yadin said they would resign if elections are scheduled for later than June.
Yadin said he believed that a bill to dissolve parliament and hold elections in mid-June would be approved by the Cabinet Tuesday.
Cabinet Secretary Aryeh Naor said an "overwhelming majority" of the 18 ministers supported such a step.He said, "It is not correct to say that Mr. Begin has not made up his mind" on advancing the elections.
Begin made it clear that he does not intend to resign, but will continue at the head of a minority government until elections are held for a new parliament and a new government is formed.
"We didn't talk about it today," Begin said when asked if he would resign.
By not formally resigning and thus allowing his Cabinet to be appointed as a caretaker government pending elections, Begin is making himself vulnerable to a spate of opposition motions of no-confidence. Since Hurvitz took with him the three parliamentary votes of the Rafi faction of Likud, it is doubtful Begin could withstand such a challenge.
If he did resign -- or lost a no-confidence vote -- the Cabinet would become transitional and immune to further no-confidence votes. Also, the Cabinet ministers would be prohibited from resigning until new elections are held.
However, coalition sources said the Likud will probably join with the opposition Labor Party in a bill to dissolve parliament, thus extracting a tacit agreement by the opposition not to harass the government with further no-confidence motions.
Among the few ministers opposed to holding elections was Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon, the cabinet's most ardent backer of building more Jewish civilian settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Sharon reportedly told the cabinet that each additional day the Likud remains in office provides an opportunity to build new settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But surrender to the Labor Party, Sharon said, would bring the Palestinians closer to gaining control of the areas seized by Israel in the 1967 war.