Israeli Gen. Ariel Sharon, who in February was branded by a panel of his countrymen as "personally responsible" for last September's massacres in two Palestinian refugee camps, is completing a triumphal bond-selling tour of the United States.
The investigative commission, which was convened amid a worldwide uproar over the atrocity, recommended the erstwhile Israeli defense minister's dismissal from the cabinet, but Prime Minister Menachem Begin decided to keep him on as a minister without portfolio.
Israelis and their friends here apologetically describe Sharon as "increasingly powerless and isolated," noting that his was one of two votes against the agreement just negotiated by Secretary of State George P. Shultz for withdrawal of Israeli and other foreign forces from Lebanon.
But he is a drawing card. American Jews from coast to coast turned out in overflow crowds, and bond sales were brisk.
Although the Jewish community, here and elsewhere, is divided over the course of the Begin government and racked with guilt over the Palestinian atrocity, Sharon, who appreciates being likened to Gen. George S. Patton Jr., was greeted warmly as an Israeli hero. He met no protests, no hecklers.
The conspiracy to erase recent history extended to the media. On "Nightline" and on "Good Morning, America," he got not a single question about the four days in the camps.
It was the same Friday at the National Press Club, where the general spoke with the inexorability and force of a tank about what the United States should do in the Middle East and, in every reference to Palestinians, called them "Palestinian terrorists."
Sharon originally was invited to the United States by a religious organization, the Emuniah Women. When the organizers of the Israeli bond drive heard he was coming, they invited him to fill five or six speaking dates. One local Israeli supporter said privately that it was "a disgrace" to have Israel represented by its most implacable and discredited hawk. But in public there were no such remarks.
Among those who turned out to hear the general at the press club was Ellen Siegel, an American nurse who is Jewish and who served in a camp hospital during the days of the slaughter. She testified before the Israeli commission.
Siegel sent a question about the massacre to the head table, but it never made it to the toastmaster, press club President Don Byrne, who said that of 35 questions given him to pass on to Sharon, none related to September's blood events.
"What kind of a picture is Israel trying to show the world by having Sharon come here?" she asked later.
As for the bond drive, a spokesman said, "We always invite members of the cabinet, and he is a member of the cabinet, perhaps a little more controversial than most, but the name of the game is to sell bonds."
To another visiting resident of Israel, Jacobo Timerman, the Argentine author of "Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number," the story of 30 months of detention and torture, it is no surprise that the Jews have closed ranks behind Sharon.
Timerman has written a searingly critical account of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, called "The Longest War." His second son, Daniel, spent his 32nd birthday in an Israeli prison for refusing to go back to Lebanon, where he had served as a reservist in June, because, he told his father, "I will not do to the civilians, the Palestinians and the Lebanese, what the Argentine army did to my family."
"It is political suicide to oppose Israel," says Timerman, "for anyone." He noted how Congress scrambled recently to vote Israel $333 million more than the administration had requested.
Sometimes, when he walks down the street in Tel Aviv, someone will yell at him, "Go back to Argentina."
To Timerman, Sharon is a "criminal who believes that the most complex political and human problems can be solved by good clandestine military action."
The deeper problem is that "Israelis believe that at every corner a holocaust is waiting."
It is not just interviewers and audiences who forget the Palestinians. The Reagan administration seems relieved that, having now agreed to a troop withdrawal the Syrians still reject, the Israelis are off the hook as the stumbling block in the Middle East problem. Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger have recast the Mideast as another East-West confrontation and are warning the Soviets.
But it isn't the Soviets who are the key. It is the Palestinians, the survivors of the camps and the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) exodus. As long as a member of the Israeli cabinet persists in describing them as "international terrorists" rather than homeless human beings--as the Jews were for so long--the Middle East will have no peace.