Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s quiet opposition to the establishment of a commission of inquiry to investigate the killings in Hebron is becoming more and more understandable.
As the televised hearings entered their second week, military official after military official continued to point to yawning lapses of security and widespread lack of discipline among Israeli forces in the territories.
The testimony inevitably focused attention on the extent of liability of the one man who, more than any other, has controlled the defense of the state for most of the past decade: Yitzhak Rabin.
Whether the commission’s conclusions will actually reach the premier cannot yet be predicted.
But Rabin knows that he first assumed the premiership, 20 years ago next month, when Golda Meir resigned in the wake of the searing report of the commission charged with investigating Israel’s unpreparedness for the Yom Kippur War.
Several Cabinet members, having joined in the unanimous Feb. 27 vote ordering the investigation into the events in Hebron, have since proclaimed themselves aghast to learn that the prime minister was strongly opposed to it. Had they only known, they say.
But their protestations are looking more and more disingenuous, and suspicions are growing that some of Rabin’s government colleagues will not be distressed no matter how far-reaching the possible judgment against him.
Granted, the prime minister let the Cabinet debate proceed without taking an active part in it himself because, as minister of defense, he bears ministerial responsibility for the army (and as prime minister, for the Shin Bet internal security forces).
Privately, though — and ostensibly too late to affeet the decision — he predicted that the commission could turn into a major mistake.
QUIETLY LOBBYING AGAINST THE COMMISSION
In his quiet efforts to lobby against the commission, he argued that army generals and other key officials would be devoting their best efforts to preparing and conducting their own defense before the five-person panel instead of getting on with their jobs.
But it is Rabin himself who, as minister of defense from 1984 through 1990, and again from 1992 until now, was at the pinnacle of the defense and security pyramid when most of the decisions were made regarding security arrangements at the Tomb of the Patriarchs.
He was at the top of the same pyramid when these various arrangements broke down one after another amid rising tension between Jews and Arabs in this most sensitive place.
Whatever the formal frame of reference crafted for the commission by the Cabinet, the fact that its hearings are being broadcast live on national television will make it virtually impossible for Justice Meir Shamgar, the commission chair, and his four colleagues to keep the scope of the investigation narrowly focused on the events of February 25 alone.
By the same token, Shamgar will find public opinion up in arms if he reaches the decision to keep the witness list confined to officers and soldiers, and not call on the political top echelon to testify.
At the head of the political echelon, of course, is Yitzhak Rabin, in his dual capacity as prime minister and minister of defense.
As the commission goes about its somber work, the notion that Rabin personally might be held accountable for the tragedy becomes less and less fantastic.
Indeed, even if the commission’s findings and recommendations focus only on the army, the police and the Shin Bet, the public’s reaction might be to demand that the political echelon take responsibility too.
This is what happened, in essence, in the wake of the commission on the Yom Kippur War, headed by then-Supreme Court Justice Shimon Agranat. Prime Minister Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan were forced by public opinion to relinquish their posts even though the commission’s recommendations concerned only the army chief of staff and key officers.
Such scenarios for the present commission, while no longer outlandish, are still not — at this point — to be seen as likely.
But the seasoned politicians who sit around the Cabinet table must surely have taken them into account when they insisted on forming the commission of inquiry despite the prime minister’s unarticulated reluctance.
What, then, were they thinking?
DOVISH MINISTERS WORKING AGAINST RABIN?
One theory, admittedly extreme and not widely held, is that a number of the dovish ministers are coming to the conclusion that Rabin, having performed the historic and irreversible handshake with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, has outlived his usefulness.
They fault him for pedantry, even obstructionism, in the ongoing negotiations on implementing the Declaration of Principles signed by Israel and the PLO last September.
These dovish ministers might, accordingly, be prepared to see him chastened, even removed, by the inquiry commission — in the hope that the government itself could survive, and would subsequently make better progress under a less rigid leader.
A more moderate, and more widely held, variation of that theory posits that many ministers, probably most of them, actively want the commission to come out with a sweeping condemnation.
They want a condemnation not only of specific security lapses, according to this theory, but of the whole edifice of prolonged military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza that, arguably, gave rise to the lapses that led to the Hebron killings.
That message would inevitable resonate both at home and abroad, and create pressure on Rabin and his top policymakers to move forward faster with the PLO, first on the Gaza-Jericho accord, and then swiftly towards autonomy for the whole West Bank.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.