The isolation of Ariel Sharon is continuing unabated, but whether it will lead ultimately to his downfall from political power remains unclear.
The Israeli press, following up an account today in the Sunday Times of London of a reported revolt in the military against the defense minister, was filled with reports of harsh criticism of Sharon across the top echelon of the Army.
The Military Command today issued a statement declaring "totally wrong" reports published abroad such as that in the Sunday Times, United Press International reported. The command said "normal working relations and relations of trust exist between the general staff . . . and the defense minister.
The unrest in the military appears to pose the most serious threat to Sharon, but it is not the only sign of isolation besetting the defense minister since the massacre. In a television interview last Friday, Deputy Prime Minister Simcha Ehrlich clearly tried to distance himself from Sharon by saying that he is increasingly convinced that a defense minister need not come from the senior ranks of the military.
According to the Israeli press accounts today, at two separate meetings within the past 10 days, ranking military officers have complained bitterly about Sharon's direction of the war in Lebanon and accused him of attempting to blame the Army for the massacre of Palestinian refugees at the Shatila and Sabra refugee camps in West Beirut.
These accounts said the unhappiness with Sharon has not broken into full-scale rebellion and a mass demand by the officer corps for his resignation, but did produce some unusually blunt criticism of Sharon's performance from his subordinates.
The first meeting took place Sept. 24 and was called by Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan to review the course of the war in Lebanon. But the meeting, which Sharon did not attend, quickly broke down into a series of complaints against the defense minister by the senior officers, who said they feared Sharon and the government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin would attempt to blame the military for any Israeli failures in connection with the Beirut massacre.
On the same day, according to The Voice of Israel radio, Sharon met in Begin's office with the commander of an elite combat unit who told him he should resign.
At the time of the first meeting, the Begin government still had not agreed to a full-scale State Judicial Board of Inquiry into the Beirut massacre. It did so on Sept. 28, and that night Sharon called a meeting of a smaller group of officers of the rank of brigadier general and above at the Army's staff college outside Tel Aviv to hear their complaints.
Many of the same complaints and fears were raised at the second meeting, although the tone was less antagonistic than the week before, according to the Israeli press accounts.
Israeli military correspondents have hinted at the widespread unrest in the military in recent days, but they were prevented by censorship from reporting the details of the two meetings that most exemplified it. Publication of similar accounts abroad has resulted in a lifting of censorship here on the issue.
In the television interview, Ehrlich said a defense minister with a military background "seeks to take command of actual military operations and disturbs the system of coordination between civilian and military authorities."
Ehrlich noted that former prime minister Golda Meir also had a former general as her defense minister, Moshe Dayan, and that she "blindly trusted his judgment." Dayan, and later Meir, were forced to resign after an earlier state board of inquiry faulted them for Israeli failures before and during the 1973 Middle East war.
Ehrlich is the leader of the Israeli Liberal Party, which is second in size only to Begin's Herut Party in the ruling Likud Bloc coalition. He thus joined the leaders of the National Religious Party, another coalition partner, in expressing at least indirect displeasure with Sharon.
Despite such criticism, there is little expectation here that Sharon will leave the Defense Ministry of his own accord. The barrel-chested former war hero is as thick-skinned and as tough a fighter as he looks, Israeli observers say, and he is already beginning to fight back.
Sharon and his allies reportedly are seeking to generate support for him around the country. A petition proclaiming, "Arik the people trust you; Arik be strong; the people are behind you," has been circulated in Jerusalem. Last week, Sharon appeared at a tribute to him in the development town of Qiryat Malakhi, where hundreds of people shouted their support for him.
Sharon also has begun answering his critics in and out of the military. In a radio interview two days after he had met with the senior officers, Sharon claimed that he had always favored a wide-ranging investigation of the massacre involving not only the military but also the government.
"I do not pass the investigation off on the Army," he said. "I insisted that the political echelon be investigated and the military echelon be investigated . . . . And if the Army is found guilty, I shall assume responsibility upon myself."
Perhaps most important in gauging Sharon's future is the attitude of Begin. Unlike some others in the government, the prime minister has shown no sign so far that he is attempting to distance himself from his defense minister.
As a result, even some of Sharon's severest critics doubt that the massacre will bring his downfall unless the inquiry board directly faults him. Writing in the Jerusalem Post, military correspondent Hirsh Goodman said Sharon had produced "pandemonium" wherever he has served, first as agriculture minister and then as defense minister, and in the latter capacity has "managed to achieve what no previous incumbent of his post has brought about: a breakdown in faith and understanding between the Israeli Defense Forces and the defense minister."
But, Goodman concluded: "Documented military and public criticism of Sharon before he was named defense minister failed to budge him from attaining his goal. Fears expressed by ministers themselves that this would mean the end of Israeli democracy failed to deflect him. A horrendous year as defense minister will fail to secure his resignation.
"As long as this government remains in power, Sharon will remain with it, unless he is singled out for ministerial responsibility by the commission of inquiry -- something highly unlikely, given the groundwork he has done to preclude this from the outset."