Archives shed light on the collapse of the Begin government 23Feb13 February 23, 2013

Haaretz     -    22 February 2013

3748404739The Sabra and Shatila documents, released today for publication by the State Archives, are an important addition to public knowledge of the 1982 Lebanon War and the functioning of the Menahem Begin government of the time.

The papers do not shed new light on the massacre. Long passages, mostly quotes of Israeli Defense Force officials, remain censored, keeping alive the suspicion that Israel is still hiding some aspects of its part in the deaths.

Censorship is beyond the control of State Archives, but it casts a shadow on its welcome initiative, and some of the separate but energetic actions by the IDF archives, to reveal documents from the not-so-distant past, especially concerning wars.

But if these documents shed no light on security matters, they do on the disintegration of Menachem Begin’s second government, the one without Moshe Dayan, Ezer Weizmann and Yigael Yadin.

The main issue is Ariel Sharon’s struggle to remain in office after the Commission for Inquiry of the Sabra and Shatila Massacre, headed by former Justice Yitzhak Kahan, recommended that he be ousted from the Defense Ministry.

The commission’s aim was to remove Sharon altogether from the government, but the legal formulation of the relevant clause enabled him to remain, though not at the Defense Ministry. Sharon’s well-known yearning to return to his farm and to the tractor – he presented himself as a farmer – was not to be fulfilled. The guillotine that was prepared for him by his fellow ministers, as he put it, did not work. He was ousted from the Defense Ministry, but not from the government.

But Sharon’s battle against the Kahan Commission proved to be Begin’s downfall.

At the cabinet meetings, Sharon sounded ungrateful. Begin reminded him that it wasn’t an easy decision to appoint him to the Defense Ministry (in the summer of 1981), after he was forced to be satisfied with the Agriculture Ministry in Begin’s first government. After Weizmann resigned from the post, Begin himself served as Defense Minster for a year and held many “consultations” – meaning that he was advised against it – until he finally succumbed to Sharon’s wish.

Sharon in response broadly hinted that Begin’s personal integrity and his direct responsibility for the IDF’s inaction as the Christian Phalangist militia entered the Beirut refugee camps and committed the massacre would be internationally condemned if the government were to adopt the Kahan Commission’s recommendations.

In order to scare the government and force it to reject the Commission’s report, Sharon inflated the Commission’s assertions. He argued that they might be used to accuse Israel – or in fact, the Begin government – of being party to a genocide.

The transparent ploy failed thanks to a direct attack by other ministers, led by the National Religious Party’s Yosef Burg (who called Sharon “a minister who carries weight”), and assisted by the attorney general, Yitzhak Zamir.

In many ways, the transcription of the meeting where the decision finally fell to oust Sharon from the Defense Ministry, reads like a comedy sketch starring three attorneys: one, who actually practiced law – the attorney general – and two others who had studied law, but engaged in different fields. Begin too, who was sometimes coined a “Polish attorney,” is humble and declines to describe himself as professional man of law.

The legal aspect was important, since the politicians hoped to find a legal loophole from the mess. In September 1982, Begin caved in to public pressure, and did exactly what the Golda Meir government did in November 1973, also under Begin’s pressure, after the Yom Kippur War. The precedent of the Agranat Comission, headed by the president of the Supreme Court and with the participation of another Supreme Court justice, ultimately led to Begin and the Likud replacing Golda Meir and the Labor party in government.

Sharon tried to argue that the Agranat Commission had five members as opposed to three in the Kahan Commission. The ministers ignored this point.

The Agranat Commission had leveled blame at the army chief of staff and other senior officers but had mercy on the politicians. The Kahan Commission on the other hand added the defense minister to the list of culprits which included the chief of staff, the director of Military Intelligence, and a certain division commander. Thus the Agranat Commission indirectly caused a problem for Sharon in particular, and the Begin government as a whole.

Zamir could have prevented the Lebanon war if he had only seriously handled a complaint concerning Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan’s deviations from authority – together with two major generals and two colonels. That was a mistake for which Yehudit Karp, his assistant at the time, expressed regret only last month. The attorney general offered no escape route for Sharon or the government.

Zamir unequivocally rejected all the formulations that would have the report, its findings and assertions – but not its recommendations – adopted. The ministers realized that the attorney general would not help them to present to the public a decision which was self-contradictory.

Sharon’s efforts to deflect the debate to Eitan’s and the other officers’ military achievements were brushed aside, as was his quip at the commission members and the cabinet who had the luxury of reaching decisions “not on the roof of the command post, under fire.”

Thus the Begin-Sharon alignment, with Eitan as a junior partner, which had managed to sink the IDF deep into the Lebanese quagmire, disintegrated.

Within six months Begin’s condition deteriorated, culminating in his withdrawal, depression and resignation.

The only survivor of these meetings, who was still active in Netanyahu’s last government, was Dan Meridor, who served at the time as government secretary.

Meridor who backed Begin against Sharon, doesn’t need the State Archives to remind him who gained most by the unraveling of the plot. More than Moshe Arens, who returned from the Washington embassy to the Defense Ministry or Shimon Peres who was appointed prime minister a year and half later, it was the most silent of all ministers, during the massacre and the government debates, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Several months after these decisive government meetings, Shamir became prime minister, a post he held until 1984, and later, for six more years.

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