There is growing anxiety among some Israeli Cabinet ministers that they are losing control of military operations in Beirut and that Defense Minister Ariel Sharon is bypassing the government in ordering major tactical advances by the Army.
As in the first weeks of the war, when Israeli armored units raced at breakneck speed up the Lebanese coast and encircled the capital, muted signs of discontent within the Cabinet have begun to surface. Some ministers are complaining privately that Sharon is displaying a penchant for ordering military operations with far-reaching political implications and seeking the government's imprimatur afterward.
The Cabinet ministers, displaying unity of purpose, have refused to air their grievances publicly. But informed government sources confirmed that Sunday's massive bombing of West Beirut--the heaviest since the beginning of the war--was ordered by Sharon without the knowledge of the Cabinet.
Similarly, the sources said, the Israeli Army's capture of Beirut's Hay Al Salloum quarter on Monday and the advance on Beirut International Airport the day before were ordered without prior approval of the Cabinet. Moreover, the Cabinet was unaware of yesterday's tank and infantry advance over the Ouzai refugee camp and the Beirut racetrack until after the fact, sources said.
While Israel's options for extricating itself from the capital without a costly ground assault into the heart of West Beirut appear to be dwindling, the recent military operations have triggered a debate in the Cabinet over whether the ministers should exercise more day-to-day control over the military.
A half-dozen Cabinet members reportedly are advocating a more restrained military approach in Beirut. Their ranks are said to include Finance Minister Yoram Arridor, Deputy Prime Minister David Levy, Energy Minister Yitzhak Berman, Interior Minister Yosef Burg, Education Minister Zevulun Hammer and Communications Minister Mordechai Zippori.
Nonetheless, Prime Minister Menachem Begin's policy of exerting maximum military pressure on Palestinian guerrillas in West Beirut so far has prevailed. The hard-line view is supported by Sharon, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Deputy Prime Minister Simcha Ehrlich, Minister Without Portfolio Yitzhak Modai, Justice Minister Moshe Nissim and chief economic coordinator Yaacov Meridor.
Some ministers are reported to be confused because fail-safe procedures to guarantee civilian control over the military have been changed twice in recent weeks, apparently by Begin at the urging of Sharon.
In the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, opposition Labor Party members have begun to openly accuse Sharon of adopting a cavalier attitude in independently ordering new military operations in Beirut. They are calling upon the government to exert more restraint on the defense minister.
One Cabinet source likened Sharon's freedom of action to that of a stockbroker who has been authorized by his client to make unlimited investments at his own discretion.
"The whole idea is ridiculous because conditions change every day. American reaction changes every day," the Cabinet source said.
Adding to the strains today, Sharon was reported by Israel Radio to have accused U.S. envoy Philip C. Habib and American diplomats in Beirut of feeding incorrect reports on civilian casualties and other battle information to Washington.
The unattributed report said Sharon made the accusations in a "tough monologue" yesterday with William Brown, the No. 2 man in the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv.
In response, White House Deputy Press Secretary Larry Speakes said Thursday that the United States believes it is receiving accurate information from its diplomats in both Beirut and Tel Aviv.
The confusion in the Cabinet over the extent of its authority over military operations appears to stem from a decision two weeks ago to appoint a seven-member ministerial committee with responsibility for approving the timing of contingency plans and broad decisions of principle that previously had required approval by the full Cabinet. The purpose of the committee, sources said, was to expedite decisions on urgent matters in the field.
However, Begin is reported to have reversed the decision, telling the Cabinet Sunday that there was no reason why all of the ministers should not vote on the timing of military operations approved in principle beforehand.