JERUSALEM (Feb. 10)
The Cabinet voted 16-1 tonight to accept in full the report and recommendations of the commission of inquiry into the Beirut refugee camps massacre. Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, whose resignation was called for by the commission, cast the lone dissenting vote.
Sharon said after the five-hour session that he would not attend any more Cabinet meetings. But a Cabinet source said the Defense Minister declined to say if he would resign. The commission recommended that if Sharon does not resign, Premier Menachem Begin should exercise his statutory authority and dismiss him.
As the Cabinet was meeting, a hand grenade was thrown at a Peace Now demonstration opposite the Prime Minister’s office. At least seven people were injured and one was reported killed. The injured included Avraham Burg, the son of Interior Minister Yosef Burg. Police asked any eyewitnesses to the incident to come forward immediately and testify. As Begin left the Cabinet meeting he told reporters that his “heart cried out for the man killed by tonight’s murder.” He called the grenade attack “a terrible, shocking tragedy.” (See P.3 for late news story.)
Begin declined to comment on the Cabinet decision to strip Sharon of power or confirm whether he would dismiss the Defense Minister. Political analysts pointed out that the government had averted a crisis and could now return to functioning without pressure upon it. As a somber Defense Minister walked to his car from the Cabinet meeting, a few supporters applauded him.
HEAVY PRESSURE ON THE CABINET
As the Cabinet prepared to meet this evening, severe pressure was brought to bear on Begin and the ministers to reach a decision on the recommendations of the inquiry commission. The three-member panel, which published its reports and findings Tuesday, called, among other things for the resignation or dismissal of Sharon and faulted the Begin government for indirect responsibility for the mass killings carried out by its Christian Phalangist allies last September 16-18.
The panel’s report precipitated a political crisis that appears to have seriously polarized the nation. The Cabinet met in special session yesterday but was unable to reach agreement on what course to follow. It adjourned after less than two hours after deciding to reconvene tonight.
Pressure built up both within Begin’s coalition and among the grass roots membership of its constituent parties who were sharply divided over the fate of Sharon. Moderate elements in the government and in Begin’s Likud urged implementation of the commission’s recommendations while Herut hardliners and the far rightwing Tehiya party demanded that Sharon stay.
If Sharon refuses to resign and Begin has to dismiss him, the Premier may face a revolt within Herut and the defection of Tehiya which could jeopardize his narrow Knesset majority. Pro-Sharon forces, led by Herut MK David Magen, took the offensive before the Cabinet met tonight. They proposed that Sharon’s fate be determined by the Likud Knesset caucus, not the Cabinet. The caucus is scheduled to meet tomorrow morning.
Magen reportedly told Begin that Sharon would agree to step down if he is asked to by a majority of the Likud faction. Begin, who is reluctant to dismiss the Defense Minister, indicated nevertheless that he would not reject Sharon’s resignation if it was submitted to him.
MK Geula Cohen, a one-time Herut member who broke with Begin over the peace treaty with Egypt and helped found Tehiya, delivered a scathing denunciation of the commission’s report today. She charged that it had exceeded its authority and was recommending “punitive sentences” against Sharon and senior military officers.
POLICE TOLD TO PROTECT PANEL MEMBERS
In a related development today, Attorney General Yitzhak Zamir ordered the Inspector General of Police to take all necessary steps to protect the three commission members from violence. Zamir acted after anonymous telephone threats to Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak, a member of the panel.
Zamir warned that any attempt to threaten members of the commission or harm them was an attempt to undermine the independence of the commission and the perpetrators would be dealt with by the law.
President Yitzhak Navon, whose office requires him to remain above politics, has reportedly studied the commission’s report thoroughly. His office said today that he would not react “at this stage.”
OPPOSITION CHARTING ITS COURSE
Meanwhile, the opposition was deep in deliberation today over what course to follow. The Labor Party’s Knesset faction met for the first time in joint session with the Secretariat of Mapam, Shulamit Aloni’s Civil Rights group and the Independent Liberal Party. They decided to wait for the outcome of tonight’s Cabinet meeting before announcing their strategy.
Most speakers at the meeting heeded Labor Party chairman Shimon Peres’ injunction to keep a low profile until the coalition decides what it will do. But they demanded full implementation of the commission’s report. Peres urged a “statesmanlike approach.” Former Premier Yitzhak Rabin called on the opposition to concentrate on the report, not on political personalities.
But former Foreign Minister Abba Eban made an obvious reference to Sharon when he spoke of “a minister who is stuck to his seat by the strongest glue produced by modern technology, so that his chair goes together with him.”