Prime Minister Menachem Begin's announcement of his intended resignation has stunned Israel. His agreement Sunday, under pressure from his Cabinet ministers, to hold off for a day left the country uncertain at time of writing whether the move was tactical or spelled the end of the Begin era. A new Cabinet meeting was scheduled for today.
Statements by aides added to the confusion. The prime minister's spokesman, Uri Porat, insisted, ''Mr. Begin is not Machiavelli, and when he says something he means it.'' But he later indicated Mr. Begin's move was not definite and that the prime minister could change his mind.
Speculation has been rife in Israel that Mr. Begin, visibly morose since the passing of his wife last November, would resign after recently turning 70, as he once predicted. Such speculation peaked when he cancelled a trip to the United States in July for ''personal reasons.''
Mr. Begin also has shown signs of strain as the war in Lebanon, which he once hoped would lead to a peace with a second Arab neighbor, has turned into a quagmire in which Israeli troops appear destined to remain in Lebanon indefinitely with casualties slowly mounting.
In addition, he has had to confront a worsening Israeli economy made more difficult to handle by the small ''Tami'' faction's threat to bolt his government coalition in protest over austerity cuts in social spending. This would leave theBegin government with a slim majority of 1 in a parliament of 120 seats.
Israeli sources feel that the Tami crisis may have been the last straw for Mr. Begin, demonstrating that the government's coalition was no longer viable.
The prime minister did not spell out his reasons for wanting to leave office, although Deputy Prime Minister David Levy said they were ''personal.''
Mr. Begin said he would consider the Cabinet's appeal but would promise nothing. Sources close to him deny his move was a political trick to frighten the shaky coalition into line.
The Cabinet's urgings reflect their recognition that loss of Mr. Begin will dramatically change Israel's political picture. It would almost certainly lead to early elections.
While the Likud has held a steady lead in the polls over the opposition Labor Party, despite the Lebanon war and the worsening economy, its percentage has been slipping and the polls show that much of its success rests with the personal popularity of Mr. Begin.
Mr. Begin has never named a successor. The name most frequently mentioned as a compromise acceptable to all factions is Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, but he lacks charisma, and popular Defense Minister Moshe Arens is ruled out because he is not a member of parliament.
Without Begin at the helm, the Likud's internal divisions may be hard to paper over, although the key National Religious Party has already said it will stay with the coalition even if he resigns.
One of the Likud's best assets is the internal dissarray of the Labor Party, which has refrained from commenting on Begin's announcement until he actually submits a resignation to Israeli President Chaim Herzog.
After receiving Mr. Begin's resignation, the Israeli President would have to consult the political factions and ask the ones which could muster a majority to form a new government. While it appears that the governing Likud could do so, it would probably then want to call an early mandate. At present elections are not due to be held until the summer of 1985.
Alternatively the Likud could pass a law in parliament setting a date for new elections. Begin would remain in charge of a caretaker government until either a new government is formed or elections are held.
The government crisis will not affect Israel's decision to redeploy its troops in Lebanon, according to Defense Minister Arens. Nor has it yet led to cancellation of the visit this week by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, a meeting to which Mr. Begin - who lost both parents in German concentration camps during World War II - cannot be looking forward. Staff correspondent Daniel Southerland reports from Washingon:
If Mr. Begin goes through with his promised resignation, some US officials would like to see a Labor Party victory in Israel. Labor Party officials are considered here to be more pragmatic and flexible than Begin and most of his political allies have been.
On the other hand, some American observers also fear that the divided and weak Labor Party might be unable to make the kind of concessions the United States considers necessary to achieve an Arab-Israeli peace.
None of the leading candidates to succeed Prime Minister Begin is thought likely to change Israeli foreign policy in any significant way. One leading candidate, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, for example, shares Begin's hard-line opposition to US proposals for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank of the Jordan River.
Moshe Arens, the new defense minister, is considered another possible choice to succeed Prime Minister Begin. American officials view Arens as slightly more flexible than Begin. He has done a great deal to help defuse tensions with the US which were created by Israel's invasion of Lebanon.