The report on the Beirut massacres has created a major political crisis in Israel and sharpened the divisions in Israeli society over the issue of the war in Lebanon. It weakens Israel's diplomatic position in the delicate Lebanese negotiations, and it may cause second thoughts among certain Arab parties who were recently showing signs of willingness to consider joining the Mideast peace process.
The commission included among its three members justice Aharon Barak, a central figure in the Israeli delegation to the Camp David talks in 1978, and it was undoubtedly aware of the effect its findings and recommendations would have. Nevertheless, the commission, after declaring unequivocally that Israel and its army bear no direct responsibility for the massacre, did not hesitate to place indirect responsibility on the shoulders of top Israeli political and military leaders.
There can be little doubt that the commission saw the indifference of leading Israelis before and during the massacre as a major threat to the moral basis of Israel's society. It issued its harsh recommendations to jolt Israel's national conscience and to make sure that never again would Israelis look the other way when they have the means to stop such atrocities.
The commission notes that the question of indirect responsibility was addressed by Jewish moralists as far back as the days when the Old Testament was written. In the book of Deuteronomy, readers are introduced to the rule of the beheaded heifer. It is said that when a human body is found and no killer is caught, it should be determined which is the nearest town and the elders of that town must "wash their hands over the beheaded heifer in the valley and reply: our hands did not shed the blood and our eyes did not see."
Thus the elders--the leadership--promise that the victim did not approach anyone in that town for help only to be dismissed without it. For if the victim could have been helped by anyone in that town, the entire town bears the indirect moral responsibility for his death.
The commission also says: "When we are dealing with the issue of indirect responsibility, it should also not be forgotten that the Jews in various lands of exile, and also in the land of Israel when it was under foreign rule, suffered greatly from pogroms perpetrated by various hooligans. And the danger of disturbances against Jews in various lands, it seems evident, has not yet passed.
"The Jewish public stand has always been that the responsibility for such deeds falls not only on those who rioted and committed the atrocities, but also on those who were responsible for safety and public order, who could have prevented the disturbances . . ."
Only against this background should the commission's recommendations be evaluated. And against this background they will not be found harsh. By any other yardstick the commission's findings, and especially the "punishments" it suggested, are out of proportion to the misdeeds, which amount to nothing more than negligence (without malice), misjudgment and insensitivity.
This long foreword was necessary to establish the terms of reference in which the current political upheaval in Israel will have to be resolved. The debate is over sophisticated and philosophical issues of principle and belief, while the solution is in the practical realm of politics. In its recommendations, the commission has tried to show how these two worlds can be reconciled. But it will not be done and cannot be done without an explosion of emotions and a collision of wills.
Israel can only hope that in the process its very fragile unity will not break down completely, even though in the long run nothing will contribute more to its inner strength than a self-taught lesson in morality. To try to analyze the political situation now is almost blasphemy, but it is part and parcel of this singular spectacle played out so fittingly in the city of Jerusalem.
Although the commission criticized Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, it did not recommend that they should resign.
It did so with regard to Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, and suggested that if he declined to resign, the prime minister should consider using legal authority to remove him from his post. Sharon and others have promised all along that they will abide by the commission's findings. But once the commission's report was made public, Sharon refused to quit. "I will not behead myself," an aide quoted him as saying.
In a clear reference to Begin, Sharon added: "I am not the only one. The entire Cabinet approved the operation of the Phalangists in the Palestinian refugee camps." This is true. But the approval was given after the fact. The operation was already under way, authorized by Sharon and Chief of Staff Gen. Rafael Eitan.
The prime minister received the commission's report 12 hours before it was made public. He spent almost the entire night studying it. His first reaction was to resign. But he was persuaded that this would be a very stupid and dangerous move. Since new elections could not be brought about, top Likud politicians told him, "you'd be yielding the premiership to Labor and the West Bank to the Arabs." This was enough to stop Begin from carrying out his intention to quit. It now became necessary to act upon the commission report. Begin, whose respect for the law and legal decisions is second to none, had no choice but to implement the commission's recommendations, although he is not so required by law.
But since the death of his wife, Aliza, in November, Begin had become almost a recluse. His reaction to the commission's report will serve as a good indicator of how deeply his wife's death has affected his ability to lead and of his capability and enthusiasm for political fighting. Begin loves nothing more than a political battle. But never before has he beem faced with anything of the magnitude that he must deal with now.
On one side is the opposition Labor Party, more than eager to replace his Likud coalition at the helm of the state. On the other side are his coalition partners, the National Religious Party and Tami, urging him to implement the recommendations in letter and spirit but refusing to let him call a new election. They know they will suffer great electoral losses while Begin can only increase his political fortunes, maybe even win an absolute majority in parliament. No party in Israel's history has ever enjoyed such power.
And from within his own party there is Sharon, always a bull in a china shop, not only in open revolt against Begin's leadership but also organizing demonstrations of support for himself. As much as Begin sympathizes with Sharon and as much as he feels that the commission's report is out of proportion, Sharon managed to commit the ultimate sin by posing a serious challenge to Begin's leadership not only of the country but also within the party. For such behavior others have paid dearly.
So the prime minister, determined to teach Sharon a lesson, let him have all the rope he needed to hang himself. Declaring he never asked a friend to resign and certainly never fired a friend, Begin got all the rest of the ministers to speak up in three long, consecutive Cabinet session, and all demanded that Sharon resign. Sharon's supporters threated a revolt in parliament, and one of them, David Magen, came to talk to Begin. No one knows if Begin heard anything. He certainly said nothing, only looked through Magen as if he weren't there. Magen departed, and the rebellion was over, with Magen's future now not much brighter than Sharon's.
But Begin did not act fast enough. The attempt to organize the street to pressure the government soon turned into a mob scene resulting in a hand grenade being thrown into a crowd of anti-government demonstrators.
This incident probably accelerated the government's inevitable decision: it adopted all of the commission report and its recommendations including those relating to both political and military personalities. The Cabinet decided that Sharon will cease to be defense minister. The compromise appears to be the following: Sharon resigns from the defense ministry but not from the Cabinet. It is not clear at all that this will satisfy everyone who needs to be satisfied in order for it to weather the political storm.
It took Sharon less than one night to realize that he had only one chance to survive politically: resign as defense minister but hang on with his teeth to a Cabinet post. He did so. In response, Begin put on a show of camaraderie. He hugged Sharon and said: "You are a young man. You still have a great future ahead of you."
A few days will pass before everything is sorted out. There still hangs a threat of Sharon's supporters within the coalition--and it is a guess how many they number--to form a bloc that may unbearably limit Begin's freedom and leadership.
The equation is very delicate. In order to be in power an Israeli Cabinet needs the support of at least 61 members of the Knesset (parliament). Currently Begin is supported by 64 deputies, but two give him only very qualified backing and have said they will not vote for him if Sharon stays in the Cabinet. Each of the options before Begin has different support. A miscalculation of the numbers can cause his downfall. Each option dictates different compromises with different and conflicting parties in an atmosphere of soaring emotions which already have claimed one life and several illustrious careers.
The politicians will find a solution. But this time it will be more difficult because the commission has outlined strict moral parameters, and nothing outside this framework will be acceptable. Israel knows that its principles and its institutions are being tested. The immediate past suggests the nation will emerge from the crisis stronger where it counts.