Jerusalem — 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.
The prime minister said he neither received nor asked for reports from his defense minister or his intelligence services about the risks of a Phalange operation. He said he did not hear Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan talk of the Phalange ''sharpening their knives'' while briefing the Cabinet, nor did Deputy Prime Minister David Levy's warning about possible massacre rouse his attention - or apparently that of other Cabinet members.
While the pro-government daily Yedioth Aharanoth called Mr. Begin's performance ''respectable,'' opposition papers have continued to use it to challenge his capabilities. ''Did he choose not to ask and not to be informed?'' demanded the pro-opposition Labor Party Jerusalem Post. ''This picture of total ignorance, if true, could raise the question of ministerial responsibility. . . ,'' the paper editorialized.
Commissioners were skeptical of Mr. Begin's explanation that a Cabinet decision taken in June to involve Phalange fighters was still relevant after the assassination of their leader, Bashir Gemayel, made revenge a possibility.
Communications Minister Mordechai Zipori testified that the June Cabinet decision was ''definitely not'' a basis for allowing the Phalange into the camps.
No one has stepped forward in public to take clear responsibility for the decision to send the Phalange into the camps. Defense Minister Sharon put the burden on Chief of Staff Eitan, with whom he is reputed not to be on good terms. Mr. Sharon said he approved General Eitan's ''analysis in the matter'' on the morning of Sept. 15. However, Lt. Col. Zeev Zecharin, the head of the chief of staff's bureau, contradicted this. He testified that Mr. Sharon ''instructed the chief of staff'' on the evening of Sept. 14 that the Phalange would enter the camps. The chief of staff testified in private hearings.
There have also been sharp contradictions over when political leaders and their aides first learned of the massacre. The time factor is important since General Eitan's decision Sept. 17 to allow Phalange troops to remain in the camps until the next morning went unchallenged, despite accumulating reports of the actual situation.
Bruce Kashdan, the foreign ministry representative in Beirut during the time of the massacre, said in testimony that International Red Cross officials told him they believed most of the killing took place the night of Sept. 17.
[He also said US special envoy Morris Draper had telephoned him the night of Sept. 17 to warn against allowing the Christian militiamen in the camps and again the next morning to insist that Israel stop the massacres. This message Mr. Kashdan said he passed on to the director general's bureau at the foreign ministry.]
Communications Minister Zipori told the commission he called Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir on the morning of the 17th after receiving a phone call from his friend, well-informed Haaretz military correspondent Zeev Schiff, that ''the Phalangists are carrying out a slaughter in the camps.'' Mr. Zipori asked the foreign minister to check the matter out with the heads of domestic and military intelligence with whom he was about to meet. According to Mr. Zipori, the foreign minister simply answered ''I heard.'' And Mr. Zipori did nothing further. Mr. Shamir will testify this week.
Prime Minister Begin told the commission he only learned of the massacre on Saturday afternoon Sept. 18 from BBC radio. However, the deputy director general of the foreign ministry, Hanan Bar-On, testified that he had relayed on Friday evening to Mr. Begin's military aide some rather vague information from a ''US official'' about the entry of Phalangists into the camps and about soldiers arresting patients in west Beirut hospitals.
The aide, Lt. Col. Azriel Nevo, has flatly denied receiving a phone call from Mr. Bar-On. He said he first learned of the massacre on Israel radio on Saturday evening.
Mr. Sharon testified he first learned that civilians had been killed when General Eitan called him on Sept. 17 at 9 p.m. and told him the Phalangists ''went too far.'' Mr. Sharon said he took no action and okayed leaving the Phalange in the camps overnight since General Eitan assured him ''the action had been terminated.''