Tabulation of the armed services vote in last week's election and the complex proportional allotment of parliamentary seats pushed Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's Likud Party one seat ahead of the opposition Labor Party today enhancing Begin's chances for forming a coalition government.
Apparently final but unofficial returns compiled by the Central Elections Commission gave the Likud Party 48 seats in the 120-member parliament and the Labor Alignment headed by Shimon Peres 47 seats. The National Religious Party and the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party won, respectively, six and four seats.
By coupling his own and the religious party seats with the three mandates won by the Tami Party, a splinter faction of the National Religious Party headed by Religious Affairs Minister Aharon Abu-Hatzeira, Begin would have 61 seats, just enough to win an initial vote of confidence for forming a government.
If the Likud won the passive support of the three members of the rightist Tehiya (Renaissance) Party and the two members of former foreign minister Moshe Dayan's Telem Party, it would have a comfortable majority of 66 seats.
Speaking on ABC-TV's "Issues and Answers," Begin rejected calls for new elections or a government of national unity, saying he will quickly form "a strong, good government, based on an absolute majority of members of parliament."
[While saying that he had no special commitments from the leaders of minority religious parties to join the Likud coalition, Begin said, "Our coalition worked very well for four years. There is no reason why it shouldn't be renewed."]
Theoretically, Peres could form a coalition by making enough concessions to win Agudat Yisreal and Abu-Hatzeira's party and couple it with the three votes of the left-of-center Shinui and Citizen Rights parties. Labor also would have to win the passive support of the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality's four communist members.
That is considered highly unlikely, however, since both Agudat Yisrael and Tami have indicated a strong preference for joining a Likud coalition.
Begin told a meeting of his Cabinet this morning that there was no longer any doubt that Israel's president, Yitzhak Navon, give him the first opportunity to form a coalition government. A spokesman for the prime minister's office said later that Begin will form a government within 10 days.
Under Israel law, the president is required to consult with all the parties winning seats in the Knesset and then ask one to attempt to form a government. Traditionally, the party with the most seats is approached first. It is given 21 days to accomplish the task, and if necessary 21 more.
Begin's Likud Party moved ahead in the vote tabulation largely on the basis of late returns of ballots cast by members of Israel's armed forces. At the end of the counting of the civilian vote, Likud and Labor were deadlocked at 48 seats apiece.
Also, distribution of "leftover" votes boosted the Likud, and gave Dayan's party and Tehiya one additional seat each. A party needs 19,000 votes to qualify for its first parliamentary seat, and requires 15,300 votes out of the 1.9 million ballots to gain each additional seat. After the seats are distributed, surplus votes are portioned out on the basis of initial strength.
Election Commission officials said it is possible that when the official tabulations are announced on Friday, the Citizens Rights Movement will pick up an additional seat at the expense of the Likud.
One obstacle confronting Begin is to patch up differences between Abu-Hatzeira and the National Religious Party, which Abu-Hatzeira bolted this spring after he was acquitted of charges stemming from when he was mayor of the town of Ramle.
Abu-Hatzeira had said he felt abandoned by the National Religious Party during his trial, and the party has indicated that it does not want to be linked with Abu-Hatzeira, who is demanding two Cabinet portfolios in exchange for teaming up with Begin.
Zevulun Hammer, minister of education and a leader of the strongest National Religious Party faction, said today his party will decide this week what to do about Abu-Hatzeira's Tami Party.
He said the National Religious Party will continue to push for a government of national unity, bringing together Likud, Labor and the religious parties until new elections can be held in a year.
"If we shall fail, I think we promised to our voters we would go with another government," Hammer said on state radio.
Begin is scheduled to hold more meetings with leaders of Agudat Yisrael, which is demanding commitments to social legislation that will benefit Orthodoxy, including a ban on the sale of pork, large grants to Orthodox religious schools and an amendment to the Law of Return specifying that the definition of a Jew is either the child of a Jewish mother or a person who has been converted to Judaism according to the Halakha, or religious law.
Agudat Yisrael also is seeking stricter bans on working on the Sabbath.