Menachem Begin may not have been more than usually truculent the other day when he claimed that his "absolute majority" in the voting would make for a stronger and more stable coalition government in Isreal.
But there may be more truth than bombast in his analysis. At first blush, it would appear that Israeli voters made a mess of it: no real edge for either Begin's Likud Party or the Labor Party of Shimon Peres; an even bigger power-brokering role for the minority Religious Parties, which actually lost considerable strength. A hairbreadth margin for a. Begin coalition in the Knesset.
But close students of the wondrous ways of Israeli politics can give you a good number of compelling reasons for consluding that the figures mislead. The Israeli political system may be healthier, as a consequence, some argue. And the new Begin government may actually have been reinforced, not weakened, by the wafer-thin outcome of the vote.
This is not to say that prospects for easing the Syrian missile crisis or advancing the next Camp David step -- the negotiations to yield a degree of self-government and autonomy to the West Bank and Gaza -- have been enhanced. It is to say that Begin is no longer in a position, appearances to the contrary, to beg off the essential Israeli concessions on "autonomy," as he has in the past, on the grounds that he is too weak to bend.
Israeli analysts themselves concede the point."These elections have moved us closer to a real two-party system and that's a healthy sign," says one, pointing to the fact that a gaggle of little splinter parties was wiped out by the voting, leaving Labor and Likud with almost 100 out of 120 Knesset seats.
With his Religious Parties allies, and without dependence on the now defunct Democratic Movement for Change, which helped bring Likud to power in 1977, Begin "now has a much more homogeneous majority," says one U.S. authority. "He's really in a stronger position potentially than he was four years ago."
To get and hold the support of the three Religious Parties (13 votes), Begin will have to do some sharp bargaining, but mostly on things like the sale of pork and other tests of religious orthodoxy. On matters having to do with general policy, they are likely to be pliable. Says one American diplomat: "Begin should have a tight, coherent, consistent bloc."
For Likud itself, the election represents a breakthrough of sorts. By gaining seats, if only three or four, the party "has proved that 1977 was not an accident, a vote to punish Labor for 29 years in power," one Israeli official contends. "There is no longer that fear of Begin, with his old underground connections. Whether good or bad, he has grass-roots support."
If this strikes some Israelis as "healthy," in terms of political theory, how it will translate into Israeli policy, in practical terms, is something else. While Begin now claims a national consensus (Labor included) to wipe our the Syrian missiles if diplomacy fails, he also may feel strong enough to let the diplomatic efforts of the Reagan administration's special envoy, Philip Habib, play out for a time.
The election was thought to be one deadline for solid progress, after which Begin would feel free to strike at the Syrian SAMs. But a quiet Saudi Arabian and Kuwaiti mediation effort with Syria and assorted Lebanese is still under way, and Habib is on his way back to the area.
So there may be room for extensive maneuvering on the Lebanese crisis, and even some hope for a peaceful resolution.
How a re-elected Begin will play Camp David is a lot harder to predict. But the short answer is that he will be no less, and quite possibly more, intransigent on the crucial questions of settlements, Israeli "sovereignty," security arrangements, land and water control, and other issues that have stymied the "autonomy" plans called for by Camp David.
Accordingly, the temptation of the Reagan administration may well be to temporize. Camp David, even by some other name, has not been high on its list of priorities.
But events will be bearing in: visits by Eqypt's Anwar Sadat in early August; Begin himself a month later; and in the fall the monarchs of Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Sadat, as he reacquires the Sinai, will be under heavy pressure to prove to fellow Arabs that Camp David was no "separate peace treaty" with Israel at the Palestinians' expense.
Sooner rather than later, then, the Reagan administration will have to figure out how tough-minded it is prepared to be in its handling of Menachem Begin. How it deals with him on the tormenting Palestinian issue will determine, in large degree, the success of its larger strategic purposes in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.