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Begin aims to stay on and Israelis get used to idea

As Prime Minister Menachem Begin's health improves, so does the likelihood that his 30-month-old government will serve its full term, ending mid-1981. And as far as the ironwilled Israeli leader is concerned, he is fit enough to fulfill his official duties, regardless of what may be whispered to the contrary in the gossipy lounges of the Knesset (parliament) or the convivial salons of his various detractors.

"I appreciate the concern being expressed for my well- being," Mr. Begin recently remarked to a gathering of newspaper editors, his voice tinged with sarcasm. He went on to assure his audience there was no need to worry.

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The point has been made, and the public seems to have grasped it: Mr. Begin is determined to hold on to the helm of state, and there is little likelihood, therefore, that the political powers-that-be will be replaced before the next national election, if then.

As a result, the average Israeli appears to have become resigned to an endless wave of assaults on his income's purchasing power and to the inevitable need to tighten his belt beyond the last notch.

"But why did they have to start with us," complained Motek Fixel, a Tel Aviv carpenter, whose job security has been threatened by the near-recession policies of the harsh new Finance Minister, Yigal Hurvitz.

Mr. Fixel, a sturdy veteran of two Israeli wars and a survivor of the Nazi slave labor brigades of World War II Europe, acknowledge the reasons for deflating the nation's economy by cutting subsidies and freezing credit. But he could not reconcile this with the apparent largesse in financing new Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

"I think we have two govvernments nowadays, not one," he went on, "Mr. Begin's Cabinet and Gush Emunim." (The latter is the militant "Faithful Bloc" that has been campaigning to populate the Biblical sectors under military control with Jewish settlers.)

Unwittingly, perhaps, Mr. Fixel was echoing the critique of sophisticated economists such as Prof. Assaf Razin of Tel Aviv University, who contend that excessive government spending is the basic cause of Israel's economic ills.

"So what if Mr. Hurvitz gives up his chauffeur," the carpenter argued."That won't make much difference."

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There has been a change in the national state of mind, however, if the tense negotiations between El Al airline pilots and mechanics and the state firm's management is a valid indicator. The pilots agreed to take a 33 percent cut in pay, and the ground crews promised not to strike for the next five years.

One of the opposition Labor Party's shadow finance ministers, Gad Yaacobin, has warned that Israel may have an unprecedented 80,200 unemployed within the next 12 months unless appropriate countermeasures are taken. This would run counter to Israel's full-employment ethos and might accelerate emigration while discouraging immigration.

Immanuel Shefer, a prominent economist, believes the inflationary spiral will be stopped by the end of 1980. On the other hand, the latest figures (for November, 1979) show a 55 percent increase in the chronic trade deficit. This could be due to market fluctuations, though, as well as the increased cost of imported petroluem.

Israel has achieved as 17 percent increase in exports for the first 11 months of 1979 -- $3.8 billion compared to $3.3 billion during the corresponding period of 1978.

It is these bread-and- butter topics, rather than such seemingly vague prospects as Palestinian autonomy and normalization of relations with Egypt, that preoccupy most Israelis.

This was borne out when the question of Palestinian home rule was mentioned to Aviv Ben-Shai, a succesful electronics engineer who lives in a posh Tel Aviv suburb.

"Most people don't think [Palestinian autonomy] will ever come into being," Mr. Ben-Shai said, recalling that when the idea was first broached by Mr. Begin, it was a topic of heated discussion and anxious speculation. "We never talk about it nowadays," he said.

Nor is there much interest in the impending opening of the land border between Egypt and Israel and the opportunity to do business with the Egyptians.

"I don't expect much trade with Egypt," predicted Shalom Lax, an import- export executive.


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