Jerusalem — Prime Minister Menachem Begin now seems certain to form a viable government because of the crucial support he has been able to win from Israel's tiny but politically significant religious parties.
But as in December 1976, when a tiny religious party sparked the fall of the Israeli government, so in 1981, Jewish religious issues may again cause a crisis in the government. Begin's coalition will include three small religious parties in a kingmaker role.
While the issues they will raise -- such as how to define who is a jew, or whether to ban Sabbath work and pork sales -- are less likely to shake this government than previous ones, they are bound to revive longstanding controversy inside Israel over the place of religion in the life of the state.
Even the most secular Israeli is not indifferent to Jewry's spiritual heritage. Israel celebrates Biblical fetes as national holidays, works the Bible into the secular school curriculum as Jewish history, and meticulously excavates Biblical archaelogicial sites around the country. Surveys indicate that around 30 percent of Jewish Israelis are strictly observant, about 20 percent more secular, and the remainder keep some traditions.
But complications arise as religion is politicized. Since Israel's founding, a multiparty system has required coalition governments. The religious parties, consistently garnering 12-15 percent of the vote, have figured prominently in almost all of them.
Once little concerned with economic and foreign policy issues, the religious parties formed a marriage of convenience with the Socialist Labor Party until 1976. The price of their cooperation was the institutionalization of religion in Israeli life.
Questions of personal status -- marriage, divorce, burial -- were kept under jurisdiction of religious courts, an Ottoman empire practice also retianed by most Muslim Mideast countries. Religious schools gained equal status with secular schools, strict Sabbath laws were enforced, a virtual ban on nonkosher meat instituted except for non- Jews.
In 1977 religious parties switched their allegiance to the Likud, a reflection of their shift to the right as well as their approval of Mr. Begin's strong religious attitudes. "For the first time we can see that we have a Jewish prime minister," explained Avraham Shapira, a member of parliament from the ultraorthodox Agudat Israel.
Paradoxically, the religious parties' influence has increased as their electoral strength dropped, apparently due to a switch by right- wing religious voters to the Likud and the ultra-right-wing Tehiya Party. Their 13 seats are critical if the Likud, which has 48, is to have a 61-seat majority coalition in the 120- seat parliament.
This lends new weight to their demands. Most controversial are those of Agudat Israel, which has four seats.
A body that does not officially recognize the secular Jewish state and accepts no cabinet posts, it is directed by the Council of Toral Sages, a group of learned rabbis. Agudat wants to amend a 1970 law defining eligibility for Jewish nationality by specifying that conversion of non-Jews be recognized only if done according to Halacha (strict Orthodox religious law). This issue nearly brought down previous governments. It alienates large segments of the American Jewish community, where many mixed marriages have resulted in conversion of one partner by less strict Reform or Cornservative Jewish procedures.
Prime Minister Begin expressed strong support this week for the Agudat position. "There is no such thing as a non-Halachic conversion," he insisted, but admitted that other views on conversion existed even within the Likud.
Agudat wants strict limits on Sabbath work permits, a ban on the sale of pork in Jewish areas, and an end to unique Sabbath bus service in the city of Haifa -- whose mayor is up in arms over the request -- and more funds for their religious schools.
In the last parliament session they achieved their goals of limiting abortions, autopsies, and military service for women pleading religious objections. This caused strains within the Likud but failed to bring down the government.
The National Religious Party (NRP) -- long the largest religious party -- is still recovering from a 50 percent drop in seats at the June 30 polls. Once pragmatic in foreign policy, its leadership is in the forefront of the movement for retention of and expanded settlement in territory considered part of historic "greater Israel," including the occupied West Bank of Jordan.
It will ask the government for more Jewish settlements on the West Bank, as well as expansion of the state religious education system and more funds for NRP-run religious study centers.
The third religious party, Tami, a three- seat breakaway from the NRP, wants more jobs and funds for Israelis of North African origins, whom it claims were discriminated against by the NRP.
The Labor Party, whose leader Shimon Peres criticized religious legislation and Orthodox "blackmail" during the election campaign, will need to win back at least some religious support in future campaigns. Mr. Peres insisted this week that Labor "had never been an antireligious party. In the future," he said, "we will seek a partnersh ip with the religious parties."