Sunday, February 24, 2013

Almost Yom Kippur: The Cabinet's Second Response to Sabra & Shatila

As noted in our previous post, on Saturday night after the three-day weekend of Rosh Hashana and Shabbat during which the massacres of Sabra and Shatila had been committed, the Cabinet rejected any responsibility for the crimes. The ensuing week demonstrated how futile the initial gesture had been. A rising wave of political pressure at home and horrible media reports abroad convinced the ministers that the story wasn't going away. At noon on Friday, September 24, 1982, the Cabinet convened for its second emergency meeting.

Prime Minister Menachem Begin opened the meeting with a proposal that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Yizhak Kahan, choose one or two additional judges or other experts and head a team of investigation into the events in Beirut. Begin added that he had consulted with the Chief of Staff, Refael Eitan, and the minister of Defense Ariel Sharon, and they had both agreed to accept any findings of such a team; he had also discussed the matter earlier that very morning with a group nine minsters, and they had all supported his proposal.

The mention of the morning's meeting aggravated the ministers, and they set off on a long-ish discussion about leaks from ministerial deliberations. Apparently, the contents of that morning's meeting had been reported in detail on the news. Some of the ministers were irked that they had been misquoted; others felt there was no point to having minisiterial deliberations if their contents were on the radio minutes later; and others pointed out that since the only participants had been ministers themselves, it could only have been a minister (or more than one) doing the leaking. A number of the ministers demanded of Begin that he set up a second investigative team to probe these leaks - a demand Begin rejected, saying one investigation at a time was enough. It is however odd - or perhaps it isn't - that the matter of the leaks took up such a significant chunk of the time allocated for the entire meeting.

The proposed form of investigation was accepted by all, and since Shabbat was approaching, and it was felt to be crucial that Moshe Nissim, the Minister of Justice, talk to the Chief Justice before the Sabbath, the meeting didn't take long; all 17 ministers present voted for it and they adjourned. Yet before they did so, they briefly debated two other aspects. The first was the possibility that the Chief Justice might not accept the offer: what then? The reason he might not accept, as they all knew but mostly weren't saying, was that such an investigatory probe doesn't have clear legal authority - such as an official commission of inquiry does.
Commerce and Industry Minister Gideon Patt: First, I'd like to say, for the protocol, that the Prime Minister was for an investigation from the first moment. In the midst of the cacaphony of well-poisoners, someone ought to leak that fact. I think it's an excellent proposal. The identity of the head of the investigation, the Chief of the Supreme Court [he said this in English] has an honorable position and this will help us on the stage of world opinion.

Minister without Portfolio Mordechai Ben-Porat: You're exaggerating a bit about the authority of such a probe.

Patt: If someone wishes to lie and is willing to lie to the head of the Supreme Court, they'll lie to a full comission, too. In the meantime, I've been getting some unpleasant telegrams from heads of Jewish communites in South America - I was there recently, so they know me - and creating this sort of an investigation will put an end to their doubts.

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