Jerusalem — It was one of the bigger surprises in Israel's turbulent political life. Members of the ruling Likud coalition registered shock and dismay as their candidate for the next president of Israel was defeated in a parliamentary secret ballot by opposition Labor Party candidate Chaim Herzog.
Prime Minister Menachem Begin expressed sorrow over the defection of coalition members, but he noted Israel was a democracy and Mr. Herzog would receive his support. The president-elect is a well-known soldier, diplomat, author, brother-in-law of former Labor Party Foreign Minister Abba Eban, and a Labor member of the Knesset (parliament).
He defeated Supreme Court Justice Menachem Elon, an eminent but little known scholar of Jewish law and an ordained rabbi.
Even though the government coalition controls 64 votes, Mr. Herzog won in a 61 to 57 vote, with two abstentions. He will succeed the popular president Yitzhak Navon who steps down in May.
Mr. Begin was said to be shaken by the result of the vote which he himself saw as a test of coalition solidarity. Talk flared within the Herut Party, the largest bloc in Mr. Begin's coalition, of the need for early elections in order to boost the Likud's seats to make it less dependent on small party coalition partners. One Likud parliamentarian even called for lie detector tests to root out the defectors.
Other Knesset members doubted the connection between the Tuesday vote and the government's ability to rule. They noted that a revolt by secret ballot was a far cry from challenging party leadership in an open vote.
Said Likud Knesset member Ariel Weinstein, ''The main problem of the government today is Judea and Samaria (biblical names for the occupied West Bank). It won't look for new elections until 1985.''
The question of ''who done it?'' set the Knesset agog, with members comparing notes and names. The possibilities reflected some of the deep ethnic and religious splits plaguing Israel and also pointed up the fact that the major parties failed to field a joint candidate for a post which supposedly expresses the unity of the nation.
Tami, an enthnic party made up of Jews of North African origin, was considered the most probable defector from the coalition because it was angry that the government did not put up a Sephardic (a Jew of oriental background) candidate. (Mr. Navon was the first Sephardi President.)
One of Tami's three deputies said he doubted whether a Sephardic boy would ever identify with an Ashkenazic (a Jew of European descent) president. But Tami said it gave only one vote to Mr. Herzog.
Many Labor Party members believed Tami would vote for Mr. Herzog because his son is married to the daughter of Swiss tycoon Nissim Gaon, a Sephardi who is Tami's financial patron. Mr. Herzog said such speculation ''made him sick.''
Other potential defectors: members of the four seat, ultra-religious Agudat Yisrael Party upset at the Knesset defeat on Monday of the highly controversial ''who is a Jew?'' bill requiring recognized conversions to Judaism to be limited to orthodox procedures.
Mr. Herzog believes he is well suited to bridge Israel's domestic schisms, in the tradition of the outgoing Mr. Navon who expanded his largely ceremonial post to reach out to all Israelis.
In the religious area, Mr. Herzog is the son of the late chief rabbi of Israel, and he is linked to the Sephardic community through extensive family intermarriage, including his own.
A multilingual man, he was born in Northern Ireland and was a former director of Israeli military intelligence. He also served as Israel's ambassador to the United Nations in the mid-1970s and is a respected author and journalist.
(Herzog, a neatly dressed moustached figure, has served his country since the foundation of modern Israel in 1948, reports Reuter. He became a household name with his military commentaries from the front during the 1967 Middle East war. Known to friends as ''Vivian,'' he studied at Britain's Cambridge University.)