Jerusalem — The mystery deepens. Prime Minister Menachem Begin's last-minute cancellation of his scheduled visit to Washington only underlines the questions being asked in all political circles here about whether the Israeli leader will - or wants to - remain in power.
Rumors are flying here about Mr. Begin's physical and psychological health and his future plans. But if any among his close aides have the answers, they are disguising them under an air of studied unconcern.
Wednesday Israel Radio broadcast a three-year-old interview with Mr. Begin in which he vehemently pledged to resign the day after his 70th birthday, which falls this week (he subsequently hedged on this promise). The broadcast sparked fresh speculation about whether he would soon step down, but aides quickly denied that he would. Israel's largest circulation daily newspaper, Yedioth Aharanoth, hypothesized that the Begin decision on his trip might be the prelude to an important announcement on his future plans, possibly signaling his resignation and naming his successor.
The rumors are fueled by Mr. Begin's long period of withdrawal from public life to the extent of reclusiveness. With increasing openness the news media, the political opposition, and even members of Mr. Begin's own party have been complaining that the government is adrift, especially in coping with Israel's deteriorating economy and figuring out a way to get disentangled from Lebanon.
''Begin is like a shadow of his former self,'' a ''close friend'' told the independent daily Haaretz, which has been critical of the Begin administration. ''The postponement of the visit will do nothing to correct the impression that he (Mr. Begin) is not in control of his government, his party, or his coalition, '' wrote Haaretz.
As if to belie the drift, the Israeli Cabinet Wednesday unanimously took a long-expected decision to unilaterally redeploy its forces in Lebanon according to plans put forth by the Israeli military and already discussed with American officials.
Some analysts link the Cabinet decision to the trip cancellation, hinting that the latter was a political move by Mr. Begin to avoid the hassle of discussing Israeli redeployment with the acquiescent but reluctant Americans. Such discussions might be even more of a hassle in the wake of the visit by Lebanese President Amin Gemayel, who is unhappy about this Israeli move.
Israeli Minister of Defense Moshe Arens, highly regarded in Washington, will travel to the US capital to coordinate details of the partial Israeli pullback. Total Israeli withdrawal, as agreed on in an Israel-Lebanon accord, has been blocked by Syria, which has refused to pull its own troops out of Lebanon.
The prime minister's condition is of major concern both here and in Washington. The conventional Israeli wisdom has been that Mr. Begin, who is said by friends to have a history of periodic depression, would snap out of this one when external circumstances lightened.
In the winter of 1980-81, he went through a similar period of withdrawal, but the challenge of new elections and the dramatic Israeli bombing of an Iraqi nuclear reactor drew him out of it.
But there has been little good news here to cheer the prime minister of late. The death of his wife was followed by the passing of a close colleague, Deputy Prime Minister Simcha Erlich.
Mr. Begin is said to be so deeply disturbed by the continuing Israeli casualty count in Lebanon that aides tried to have removed a placard manned by antiwar demonstrators across from his house that keeps a running count of the fatalities.
Mr. Begin's withdrawal from active direction of the government has come at a time when the nation badly needs a steering hand. He has cut out public speeches in English to visiting delegations, and the rare Hebrew speeches of this once-fiery orator now tend to stop after a few minutes.
With former Defense Minister Ariel Sharon relegated to a powerless minister-without-portfolio position, and without any current ministers who possess the ''star'' quality of some members of previous Begin Cabinets, attention is focused on the steady performance of Defense Minister Arens.
But with the prime minister said to be giving little direction to the government, the Israeli public has drifted through a bitter and lengthy national doctors' strike, a wave of protests in the capital by religious zealots, and, perhaps most potentially damaging, a sharply deteriorated overall Israeli economic performance. While the country's trade deficit has soared 23 percent over the same period last year, inflation hovers around 140 percent annually, and no one in the government has yet produced a viable new economic policy.