Despite Prime Minister Menachem Begin's narrow survival this week of another ''no confidence'' vote in the Knesset, the opposition Labor Party is bent on new elections.
Domestically, the new elections would center around the issue of Israel's hyperinflated, debt-ridden economy. But more important for the Middle East--and, in the long run, for Israelis--the next elections almost surely would give Israelis a clear choice of what to do with the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Prime Minister Begin stands for annexation. The Labor Party stands for compromise.
Officials with Mr. Begin's Likud coalition are confident that if new elections are held soon Mr. Begin would receive a stronger Knesset share than he now enjoys. Public opinion polls bear out that thesis, and some Labor Party officials admit that they might not do well, though they say former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin might draw more votes than their current leader, Shimon Peres.
The latest challenge to Mr. Begin came after the defection this week of two members of his coalition due to their dissatisfaction with economic policies: Inflation is running at 136 percent; the foreign debt is $2.5 billion; and thousands of Israelis are emigrating each year.
Labor leaders seized upon the Knesset defections and the economic issue as possible means of unseating Mr. Begin--and failed by one vote. Last month Labor attempted to bring down the government over the issues of the Sinai withdrawal compensation and the handling of civil unrest on the West Bank.
As Labor strategists see it, their prospects of gaining power would be enhanced if:
* Mr. Begin himself does not run.
* Labor can ''co-opt'' Knesset members and form an interim governing coalition, thus giving Labor important policy and purse powers of incumbency going into new elections.
* The United States somehow coaxes Jordan's King Hussein into the peace process, thereby making Labor's ''Jordanian option'' strategy more credible to Israeli voters.
Former Israeli Ambassador to Washington Simcha Dinitz told the Monitor recently Labor still sees the ''Jordanian option'' as centerpiece of its Middle East strategy. It is a policy, Mr. Dinitz says, that could provide answers to three tough questions about Israel's future that Mr. Begin's approach has not addressed.
These are how annexation of the West Bank and Gaza--which Mr. Begin's party seems bent on, albeit piecemeal--would affect Israel's (1) security, (2) democracy, and (3) Jewish character.
Under Labor's Jordanian option, Mr. Dinitz argues, Israel would retain control of ''security zones'' in the Jordan Valley and on strategic West Bank hilltops but would hand over most of the populated Palestinian areas to Jordan. Annexation, Mr. Dinitz believes, would inflame the Palestinian areas and compound Israel's already extensive security concerns.
Incorporation of the 1.3 million Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza would also force this difficult choice: Should Israel grant these Arabs citizenship and risk Jews eventually becoming a minority in their own state? Or should Israel withhold citizenship and thereby cease to be a democracy?
''Likud to this day has had no satisfactory answer to these questions,'' Mr. Dinitz says.
While the ''Jordanian option'' has repeatedly been rejected by King Hussein, another Labor Party strategist (speaking anonymously) contends: ''Yes, Jordan is out, but not permanently. We don't see any sign that King Hussein has given up the concern he has for regaining West Bank control. He pays salaries, even if it is with PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) funds. He negates PLO footholds in his own country. Given the proper political and environmental elements, Hussein again could be a a partner.''
This official calls a Jordanian/Palestinian state ''viable and sensible.'' But he says that in order for Jordan to make a move--and in order for a Labor-governed Israel to act as a peace partner--the United States must launch a new effort to bring Jordan and other moderate Arab states into the peace process.
That, at least, is the scenario the Labor Party would like to see. But given Mr. Begin's apparently high popularity, it may be difficult for Labor to enact it.
The Likud policy of expanding Israeli settlements in the occupied territories (aiming for 30,000 Jewish settlers there in five years), of taking control of West Bank and Gaza institutions (such as city governments, universities, and utility companies), and ultimately of annexing what it refers to as ''Judea and Samaria''--these appear to be popular with most Israelis. The ''iron fist'' military policy in the occupied territories is aimed not only at controling the Palestinian populace but, if that fails, of stimulating their emigration.
Moreover, since most Israeli workers are tied into a system of automatic cost-of-living pay increases, the inflationary economy is not as damaging to their interests as might appear.
At least one Labor official candidly admits that the Israeli electorate might not be inclined to turn Mr. Begin out of office. Nevertheless, this official believes new elections are coming within a year and says Labor is determined to use every opportunity to try to unseat Likud.