IT HAS BECOME quite clear that Menachem Begin will continue as prime minister of Israel. He is in the process of adding the 13 seats of three religious parties to his Likud's 48, which would give him 61 out of 120 seats in the Knesset.To those unfamiliar with coalition-ranking in multi-party systems, the spectacle now unfolding in Jerusalem is eye-opening. You might think that, for a nation as tightly stretched as Israel, the great issues of war and peace would dominate all others. In fact, the system gives swing parties leverage, which they use to press singularly parochial concerns.One of Mr. Began's coalition partners, for instance, is bargaining for a commitment to ban the sale of pork. Another is led by a fellow with a special interest in staying out of jail: he is in between bribery charges, having just beaten one rap but facing still another.
Since Likud defeated Labor by only one Knesset seat, it is being suggested that a new Likud government may not be long for this world. Already one can bear talk of new elections in a year. Such forecasts seem wishful. The theory flowered during the campaign that Israel's low-income Sephardic or non-European Jews were coming into their own and tipping the balance permanently against a supposedly snooty and long-neglectful Labor Party. But this is too glib. While Likud was rising from 43 seats in 1977 to 48, Labor came back from 32 to 47 the big parties took seats from small ones. These trend indicate that the profit in early elections would almost certainly go to Labor.Mr. Begin seems to understand that well. He calls his majority "absolute" and claims its very slimness will keep the coalition honest. On key security issues, moreover, he can count on extra votes from -- believe it or not -- his right.No party in Israel's 33-year history has ever won a majority.
Probably most people outside Israel hoped that Labor, with its promise of greater flexibility on the Palestinian issue, would win. Interestingly, a good many Israeli Arabs seem to have abandoned the small Arab parties from Labor. A "Maoist" minority in Palestinian ranks and elsewhere, however, hoped for a Begin victory -- on the theory that only he could widen an American-Israeli rift to the point where the United States would actively turn against his Palestinian policy. That is a cynical position that does not give Mr. Begin his due for making peace with Egypt and for signing the Camp David accords. It is on Mr. Begin's record in his first term -- especially his Camp David commitment to negotiate with Palestinians a solution to the Palestinian problem -- that others hope he will build in his second.