Jerusalem — The central figure in the Israeli election campaign is a man who has not been seen in public for the better part of a year - former Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
Shouts of ''Begin, Begin'' greet his successor, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir , as he takes to the stump for the July 23 election.
Although the shouts from mostly blue-collar Likud coalition backers are of support rather than derision, Prime Minister Shamir is aware that the reflected glory of his predecessor may not carry him very far.
A recent public opinion poll shows the opposition Labor Party with a clear lead over the Likud in the national contest, 44 percent to 28 percent. This margin is even wider than it was two months ago, when the difference was 41 to 28. The poll shows that the Likud would not be able to form a government made up of its present coalition partners, although public opinion could shift.
Mr. Begin, who stepped down from office last year, reportedly because of ill health and depression, has remained a recluse. He does, however, receive occasional visitors and has given periodic telephone interviews on radio.
Last month Shamir asked Begin to accept the symbolic last place on the Likud's list of parliamentary candidates. Begin refused, which some political observers interpret as a rebuke. He would not have had to serve in the parliament because there is no chance of his being elected under Israel's proportional representation system. But the presence of Begin's name on the list would have been his blessing.
Shamir is considered an uncharismatic person who tries to overcome his shyness and his short stature with a forceful speaking style. Thus far, however, he has failed to stir his audiences.
Labor Party leader Shimon Peres has a different problem that has likewise dampened his campaign. Although he is considered a dynamic speaker, his style has been known to grate on blue-collar audiences.
During the last election campaign, he was the target of thrown vegetables and invective. Thus far in this campaign, he has spoken in sympathetic environments and his tone has been nonpugnacious.
Some Laborites feel their party should keep a low profile. Daily events, they say, are undermining public confidence in the Likud more than any campaign could.
''If the main Page 1 headline on a given morning tells people that teachers are striking and a million kids are out of school, that is more effective than our entire campaign and hurts Likud more,'' a Labor campaign official says. ''Events are doing our work for us and there is no reason for us to get controversial.''
Labor campaign strategists also say that a low voter turnout next month would work to their party's advantage, so Labor is not eager to overexcite the electorate.
''We believe our voters are more dedicated and that more will show up proportionally to vote,'' the campaign official says.
Some Labor leaders say this is a mistake and that the tone of the campaign should be fire and brimstone - anger at the Likud for the Lebanese war, for almost 400 percent annual inflation, for the emergence of an alleged Jewish terrorist underground, and for the stalling of the Arab-Israeli peace process.
''Another four years of Likud rule will block all options to peace,'' says former Foreign Minister Abba Eban, a Labor Party stalwart. ''Our campaign thus far lacks anger and clear statements of policy.''
The campaign will presumably warm up this week when the parties begin to broadcast election messages on TV. But despite the critical issues at stake, the absence of Begin's polarizing personality will continue to be felt.