Sharon proves unsinkable . . . with wide repercussions
Ariel Sharon - the political bete noire of the United States government and the irrepressible force of Israeli politics - has not yet been vanquished. The Israeli government has decided to keep the controversial Mr. Sharon in the Cabinet - in the aftermath of the Kahan Comission report into the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Beirut - while handing over his defense portfolio to Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
This decision leaves unanswered questions which will continue to engross the Israeli body politic and possibly the international political community as well:
* Will the Israeli government serve out its term until 1985 now that the immediate crisis appears solved, or are new elections still a possibility?
* Will Mr. Sharon continue to influence defense policy, notably the issues of Israeli-Lebanese negotiations on Israeli troop withdrawals from Lebanon and policy on Jewish settlements on the Israeli-occupied West Bank?
* Will domestic, social, and political divisions that were aggravated by the Kahan Commission report, widened further by Mr. Sharon's defiance of the commission's recommendations and blasted open by a grenade attack on anti-war demonstrators, be encouraged to heal?
When Mr. Begin takes over the defense portfolio Monday, assuming necessary Knesset (parliament) approval - which his government feels is assured - the Begin Cabinet believes it will have fulfilled its primary obligation to the Kahan report.
The commission called for Mr. Sharon to resign and suggested that if he refused the prime minister should sack him. (The commission also called for action against several senior military officers, a recommendation accepted by the Cabinet which is expected to implement it shortly.)
Opposition Labor Party members and some constitutional law experts argue that keeping Mr. Sharon in the government (as minister without portfolio) evades the spirit of the Kahan recommendation. Government members, however, insist that the recommendation on Mr. Sharon has been met. None of the commission's recommendations have legal force.
The Labor Party, which had hoped it might be returned to office in the aftermath of the Kahan report, appears to be in disarray. Labor had embarked on a two stage strategy: first, to press the government to adopt the recommendations; and next to try to bring the Begin coalition down without elections by encouraging smaller coalition partners to desert the government and join a new coalition with Labor.
This strategy was dictated in large part by Labor's fear that it would lose new elections. The strategy failed miserably. Mr. Begin's key small coalition partners, the National Religious Party (NRP) and North African Jewish Ethnic Party (TAMI), sensing Mr. Begin's government was a winner and fearing to alienate their voters, promised not to jump ship before new elections.
As for new elections, Mr. Begin would still like to hold them. But he wants to put a short interval between any move toward an early ballot - which he is sure he will win - and the carrying out of the commission's recommendations. He does not want the opposition to be able to charge him with seeking to divert attention from the report. And he is encouraged by signs that the NRP - which had opposed early elections because it feared it would do badly - now would go along if he insisted.
As for Mr. Sharon's future political role, it hinges in part on whether the defense portfolio is soon handed over to Mr. Begin's first choice for the job, Israeli Ambassador to the US Moshe Arens. But the Arens substitution must first overcome two hurdles: domestic politics and Mr. Sharon.
Mr. Begin is worried that if he appoints Mr. Arens, who is a member of the Herut wing of the Likud, he may face a counter-demand from another faction for additional Cabinet posts. Perhaps more important, Mr. Arens - a strong personality and a hawk himself - would want to be assured if he were to take the job that Mr. Sharon would not try to preempt decisions in his sphere.
If Mr. Begin himself continues to hold the portfolio, speculation is that Mr. Sharon will try to keep a foothold in some of the old policy areas, notably Lebanon. Mr. Begin is not a military expert. He has depended heavily on Mr. Sharon for military advice in the past and might well do so again.
Mr. Sharon has already predicted that his ouster as defense minister will cause no change in West Bank policy. ''I will continue to be an obstacle to anyone trying to force upon Israel the establishment of a Palestinian state,'' he told an audience on Friday.
Ariel Sharon's continued presence in the government is likely to make it harder to heal the wounds between Israel's ethnic communities. These burst into the open after last week's grenade attack that killed a demonstrator from the Peace Now movement. Peace Now was calling for implementation of the Kahan report. (No arrests had been made at time of writing.)
Mr. Sharon has repeatedly attacked opponents of the war in Lebanon as ''traitors.'' By refusing to resign from the government - and succeeding to an extent - he has upheld his rejection of the Kahan Commission's conclusions. His continued presence is bound to cause great bitterness among government opponents who see him as a symbol of the ''verbal violence'' which many leading Israeli's have said preceded the grenade attack.