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Israeli inquiry eyes politicians' role in Beirut massacre

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The Israeli commission of inquiry into the massacre of Palestinians in Beirut appears as intent on probing the judgment and conduct of political leaders as on scrutinizing the behavior of the military.

Sharp questioning so far has etched a picture of a prime minister and Cabinet informed only after the fact of the decision to send vengeful Christian militiamen into Palestinian refugee camps and apparently undeterred by warning signals of the risks.

The hearings, entering their second month, have prompted buck-passing by political and military leaders and their aides as to who actually made the decision. And they have stirred a flap over when the prime minister, and the foreign minister, first heard of trouble in the camps.

None of this, however, guarantees a political shakeup. The recommendations of the commission are not binding. Should the commission find political leaders culpable, their political survival, as well as that of the ruling Likud coalition, will depend heavily on public reaction.

Current public opinion polls show the Likud coalition substantially ahead of the opposition Labor Party. Prime Minister Menachem Begin remains a popular leader here, though Defense Minister Ariel Sharon's popularity has dropped substantially since the massacre.

At a minimum, the unflattering picture of recent government decisionmaking processes and communications lapses revealed so far will continue to fuel political debate about the governing coalition's survivability.

Prime Minister Begin has absolved himself of responsibility for sending Christian Phalange forces into the camps. He testified he found out about the move, along with the rest of the Cabinet, only at a Cabinet meeting on Thursday evening Sept. 16. This was some hours after Phalangist militiamen had already gone inside.


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