he Israeli Cabinet tonight postponed for another day a decision on how to deal with the findings of the commission that investigated the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Israeli-occupied West Beirut.
The postponement, which came after intense political maneuvering and a three-hour emergency Cabinet meeting tonight, left the political future of Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and the course of the Israeli government still in doubt.
Sharon was continuing to resist demands for his ouster although the commission had recommended in its report on the massacre that he resign or be dismissed by Prime Minister Menachem Begin. With Begin quoted by aides as saying he would not fire the defense minister or ask for his resignation, an internal political stalemate continued.
In the first full day since release of the report, the Israeli press almost unanimously praised the work of the panel and called for the speedy implementation of its recommendations, including the ouster of Sharon. One exception was the conservative afternoon daily Yediot Aharonoth, which chastised the commission for having "insulted important people in the eyes of the world."
Palestinian leaders in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip also praised the report but said the real test would be the government's reaction to it.
"If the Israeli government puts aside the recommendations of the commission, it means that democracy here is just a theory," said Rashid Shawa, the deposed mayor of Gaza.
At the outset of tonight's meeting, several hundred people demonstrated outside Begin's office in support of Sharon. When Sharon arrived for the meeting, some of the demonstrators broke through police barricades and mobbed his car to declare their loyalty to him.
Dan Meridor, the Cabinet secretary, said the Cabinet will meet again late Thursday afternoon and is expected to decide whether formally to adopt the report, which declared that Israel bears clear "indirect responsibility" for September's massacre of hundreds of Palestinian refugees in West Beirut by its allies, the Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia.
Meridor said the principal reason for which a decision was put off tonight was a request to appear before the Cabinet by two senior Army officers whose careers are endangered by the inquiry board's findings. These are Maj. Gen. Yehoshua Saguy, who the commission said should be removed as chief of military intelligence, and Brig. Gen. Amos Yaron, who was the commander of all Israeli forces in Beirut at the time of the massacre and who the panel said should be demoted from field command.
A senior Israeli official said after the meeting that a clear majority in the Cabinet favors adoption of the commission report and recommendations. But what this would mean in practical terms, particularly regarding Sharon, remained as murky as Begin's personal calculation of the damage done to his government by the panel's findings.
The official said that, with Begin unwilling to fire Sharon, it would be up to the defense minister to decide whether Cabinet approval of the commission report gave him no choice but to leave the government. He also confirmed that during tonight's Cabinet meeting Sharon urged his colleagues not to adopt the panel's findings regarding the Israeli Army--in effect sparing Saguy and Yaron and softening the blow to Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Rafael Eitan and northern commander Maj. Gen. Amir Drori, both of whom were severely criticized in the report.
But, the official asked, "If you exempt the military and there is no resignation [by Sharon], what is left?"
Since the report was released, Sharon has made a concerted effort to tie himself to the Army, a revered institution in Israel.
Begin is known for his strong loyalties to political associates, and this could be a factor in his reluctance to move swiftly to force Sharon from the government. But Begin also has political factors to consider that make his situation more difficult than it might appear.
The firing of Sharon could easily lead to defections by the defense minister's right-wing colleagues in the government coalition, including the three members of the nationalistic Tehiya party. The coalition currently holds 64 seats in the 120-member Israeli Knesset, or parliament.
If Sharon took just four other Knesset members with him in turning against the government, it could lead to the collapse of Begin's coalition.
Moreover, while Sharon is controversial and hated by many Israelis, he has a passionate and sizable cadre of followers who are also part of the bedrock of Begin's support and whom the prime minister does not appear eager to alienate.
In addition, over the years and particularly during the war in Lebanon, Begin and Sharon have become identified in the public mind as the twin pillars of Israeli policy.
"They hang together or they hang separately," a liberal Israeli academic said before the commission report was released. "It will be difficult for Begin to put all the guilt on Sharon."
Begin also has given no indication since the report was made public yesterday that he has changed his initial view of the massacre--which was that it was a case of Christians killing Moslems for which the Jewish state bears no responsibility. If that remains his personal attitude, it could be difficult for him to justify firing Sharon, who is acknowledged even by his severest critics to be a brilliant military tactician and an able administrator.
However, retaining Sharon as defense minister, in open defiance of the explicit and forceful recommendation of the inquiry board, also appeared risky. This course could lead to defections by more moderate members of the government coalition and a rise in public dissatisfaction that could also threaten the government's survival.
This dilemma for Begin and his colleagues led to the intense maneuvering. One idea that was floated by some Israeli politicians would amount to a parliamentary fast shuffle.
It called for Begin to resign, bringing down his own government, but only after he received ironclad assurances from his coalition partners that they would then join him forming a new government. By such a ploy, Sharon would be neither fired nor forced to resign and would become a "minister without portfolio" in the new government. Sharon, however, was said to have rejected the idea.
Before tonight's Cabinet meeting, Begin met with U.S. special envoy Philip C. Habib to discuss the negotiations on a troop withdrawal from Lebanon. But with Israel absorbed in its internal political crisis, the meeting was barely noticed.
Begin spent most of the day in a series of meetings with advisers and political associates. It was clear from public comments that he could count on strong support from right-wing Knesset members for a decision to hold elections later this year.
But alling for new elections was not a clear-cut option for Begin because some of his coalition partners, such as the National Religious Party, are reluctant to consider new elections because of their overall political weakness.