JERUSALEM -- An ailing and secluded Menachem Begin resigned Thursday as prime minister of Israel, clearing the way for his old underground comrade, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, to become the new leader of the Jewish state.
Begin's chief of staff, Matityahu Shmuelevitz, said the prime minister's decision to resign nearly three weeks ago was 'due to his physical weakness.'
The 70-year-old Israeli leader broke with tradition and sent his Cabinet secretary with a two-sentence letter of resignation to President Chaim Herzog, who was expected to start the process of choosing a successor on Sunday.
'According to section 23 (a) of the Basic Law: The Government, I hereby submit my resignation from the office of prime minister,' the letter said. 'Yours respectfully, and with all good wishes to you and your family for a Happy (Jewish) New Year. Menachem Begin.'
Begin's spokesman, Uri Porat, was quoted by Israel Radio as saying the prime minister was suffering from a skin rash that prevented him from shaving, indicating Begin did not want to be seen disheveled in public.
The Ha'aretz newspaper, however, said Begin's physical and emotional health had sunk to the point that friends feared the once-vibrant Israeli leader had become indifferent to whether he lived or died.
'He has not only withdrawn into himself but apparently his physical existence no longer interests him,' the newspaper quoted one long-time associate as saying. The report said the associate had tears in his eyes.
In delivering the letter, Cabinet Secretary Dan Meridor told Herzog, 'The prime minister wanted to do this himself. But because he is still forced to remain in his home, he asked me to fulfill this task.'
In Washington, President Reagan sent Begin a personal message, wishing him well on his retirement.
Calling him 'a source of inspiration,' Reagan feels Begin showed 'the courage and determination to make the kind of difficult decisions for peace ... which are so neccessary to bring stability' to the Middle East, White House spokesman Larry Speakes said.
Though he has remained secluded from the public for eight days, Begin will remain caretaker prime minister until a new government is approved by the Knesset, or parliament.
However, he could choose to go on a leave of absence, leaving an acting prime minister in charge of the government. That appointment must be made by the Cabinet.
Speaking to reporters after receiving Begin's letter, Herzog wished the prime minister 'a speedy recovery ... a life of good health (and) success in all that he undertakes.'
After the Yom Kippur holiday, which ends Saturday at sundown, Herzog will start formal consultations with Israel's numerous political parties to determine who has the most parliamentary support to form a new government.
Herzog is expected to ask Shamir, recently elected by the Herut Party as their candidate for prime minister, to form the new coalition.
Shamir succeeded in rallying Begin's fractious coalition partners, gaining pledges they would join a new government under his leadership and ensuring a 64-seat majority in the 120-member parliament.
Like Begin, Shamir is Polish born and a leader of a pre-state Jewish underground, which used terrorist tactics to fight the British mandate.
He has said he would adhere to Begin's hardline policies on Lebanon and expanding Jewish colonization efforts on the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.