JERUSALEM (Feb. 9)
The Cabinet met today for the second time since the inquiry commission on the Beirut refugee camps massacre released its report yesterday and again decided to postpone a decision on the recommendations of the report. The Cabinet will meet again tomorrow evening when, according to observers, a decision is expected.
The inquiry panel, in its report, called for the resignation of Defense Minister Ariel Sharon or his dismissal by Premier Menachem Begin for willfully ignoring the obvious dangers of “vengeance and bloodshed” against civilians when he allowed armed Christian Phalangists to enter the west Beirut camps last September 16 to root out Palestinian terrorists suspected of hiding there.
The commission, in its report and recommendations, accepted Begin’s testimony that he knew nothing of the massacres until he heard of them from a foreign radio broadcast after the fact. But it faulted the Premier for his detachment from events, though it found mitigating circumstances.
The Cabinet yesterday met for less than two hours to consider the report and decided to meet again today. The key issue on its agenda yesterday was whether Sharon should resign. Israel Radio reported that Begin announced at the session that he had no intention of dismissing Sharon.
Today’s session was described as one of the most tense ever held. Ministers were said to be deeply divided on the steps to be taken. The late afternoon meeting took place as demonstrations for and against Sharon and the government took place around the Prime Minister’s office.
SHARON REMAINS TIGHT-LIPPED
Sharon himself, the center of the storm, left the meeting after about two hours, to attend a previously-arranged reception for the Defense Minister of Zaire, Rear-Admiral Lomponda, who arrived on an official visit yesterday.
In his first public appearance since the publication of the inquiry panel’s report, Sharon, addressing the Likud’s Order of Jabotinsky in Tel Aviv, last night, expressed fulsome praise for each of the army officers criticized by the report. Referring to them one by one he described the brilliant military career of each.
But Sharon added that apart from these remarks, he would refrain from any reference to the commission’s report. The government had decided that it would react to the report as a body, and he would abide by that decision, he said.
Sharon devoted his address to a review of the situation in Lebanon and on the West Bank. He was received with a standing ovation by the Herut audience and was frequently applauded during his address.
Shortly before the Cabinet convened today there was a surprise announcement by the Agudat Israel Party that it opposed implementing the inquiry commission’s recommendations. Agudat leader Shlomo Lorincz said that his party had been against the establishment of the commission and was against its findings. He said the findings could only be bad for Israel and the Jewish people as it would cast a general slur because the report’s conclusions were tantamount to an admission of guilt.
Begin’s aides said he entered the Cabinet meeting “in a fighting mood, ” but there was no indication of how he would decide to lead the Cabinet in its decisions.
Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who returned from West Germany shortly before the Cabinet session, having cancelled his planned visits to Belgium and Luxembourg, declined to comment until after he had read and studied the report.
He and other ministers were in favor of a postponement of a decision for a few days. Herut supporters were demanding the postponement of a decision until at least next week, by which time the Herut Central Committee could have met and hammered out a post-inquiry panel report policy.
POSSIBILITY OF ‘TACTICAL RESIGNATION’
Meanwhile, a strong possibility arose of a “tactical resignation” of the entire government as a way out of the impasse created by Sharon’s refusal to resign and Begin’s reluctance to fire him.
According to coalition politicians, “tactical resignation” means that Begin would step down, automatically triggering the government’s resignation. It would then be reconstituted intact, but without Sharon. A variation of that scenario is that Sharon would remain in the Cabinet but not as Defense Minister.
The loyalty of the four small parties which are Likud’s coalition partners is the condition for implementation of this scheme. There were behind-the-scenes consultations before the Cabinet convened this evening to determine whether the minor parties are ready to pledge their loyalty.
There is fear within Likud that the National Religious Party and/or Tami will prove to be “weak links” in coalition solidarity and could be wooed by the Labor opposition away from the Likud alliance.
Labor could be expected to do its utmost, if Begin resigns, to disrupt the “tactical resignation” scheme and establish an alternative government in alliance with one or more of Likud’s present partners.
But according to media reports today, all coalition parties have given their words that they would cooperate with Begin and resist Labor blandishments. According to voice of Israel Radio, Likud floor managers in the Knesset were trying to obtain these commitments in writing.
Begin and Sharon reportedly had not budged from their positions as the hour approached for the Cabi- net to convene. Sharon was described as adamantly refusing to “axe himself” and felt responsibility should be shared by all the ministers inasmuch as he acted on behalf of the Cabinet.