Israel's deputy prime minister has charged that former defense minister Ariel Sharon always intended to go beyond Israel's announced goal of clearing a 25-mile "security belt" when it invaded southern Lebanon a year ago today and that the Cabinet was fed "inaccurate" information to justify Sharon's plans.
The allegations were part of a series of charges and countercharges by Sharon and other members of the Cabinet this weekend as the anniversary of the outbreak of the war produced a flood of newspaper articles and radio and television programs.
In a television interview last night, Deputy Prime Minister Simcha Ehrlich said that Sharon misled the Cabinet to gain its retroactive approval for the capture of the Beirut-Damascus highway.
Aside from the lingering political acrimony and the reemergence at its center of Sharon, the key Israeli figure during the war, the first anniversary of the invasion passed quietly today.
Fearful that the anniversary of the war would set off protests in the West Bank, the Israeli Army beefed up its security forces in the occupied territory and imposed curfews on at least four refugee camps and the main market of the Palestinian city of Nablus. However, there were no reported demonstrations or incidents in connection with the anniversary.
Ehrlich, in the television interview, said the Cabinet was told the Syrians had attacked the Israeli Army, requiring an Israeli response, but that he learned later the Syrians had been provoked by the Israelis.
"I can't go into detail," Ehrlich said, "but I was given information that was proved, at least to me, to be inaccurate, when it was reported that fire had been opened at our forces by the Syrians.
"And here I doubt whether it was so, since afterward I received reports from the front, from the field, that fire had been opened not just from the Syrian side--that is, there had been provocation."
Asked if the Cabinet had approved the Israeli Army's drive to the Beirut-Damascus highway, which the Israelis still control, Ehrlich said, "after the fact."
Speaking of the conduct of the war and Sharon's leadership as defense minister, Ehrlich said, "There were irregularities. Sometimes they were acceptable, tolerable irregularities, but there were also irregularities that were unacceptable and intolerable." He declined to give details.
Ehrlich, who meets frequently with Prime Minister Menachem Begin, was responding to statements by Sharon that, in effect, accused his Cabinet colleagues of undermining Israel's war effort and of attempting to escape their responsibility for approving the invasion.
"The Cabinet had the whole picture, and dozens, if not hundreds, of questions were asked at Cabinet meetings about every detail," Sharon said in a radio interview on the weekend. "Nobody can say the Cabinet was napping and suddenly woke up on the Beirut-Damascus highway. I have noticed there is a tendency to present some people as the ones who got the country into the war, and others as the ones who objected, warned and ultimately reached an agreement with Lebanon."
In the same interview, the former defense minister said he mistakenly had assumed that "on such issues as the defense of the country, all Israelis were united and nobody would exploit the situation for political gain" and that the Israeli government "would have the strength to stand firm and not run away from responsibility."
Sharon, the architect of the war, was forced to give up the post of defense minister in February by the findings of the Israeli commission that investigated last year's massacre of Palestinian refugees in Beirut. He was allowed to remain in the Cabinet without specific duties and virtually dropped from public view after his ouster.
In the past few weeks, however, Sharon has been speaking out more frequently, using the occasion of the anniversary of the invasion to make a spirited defense of his actions as defense minister and to criticize both his Cabinet colleagues and the general direction of Israeli policy since he left the Defense Ministry.
While the internal acrimony over the war continued, an Israeli official who accompanied Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir to Europe last week expressed pleasure today at Israel's improved diplomatic position since the signing of the troop withdrawal agreement with Lebanon last month. He said European officials with whom Shamir met agreed that it is now only Syria that is preventing the withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon.
"It was pleasant to be again in a majority and not to be a minority of one," the official said. "We were not the bad guys any more."