Begin weathers Israel's problems, despite clouds of Beirut massacre
Jerusalem — Menachem Begin is displaying an extraordinary political resilience in face of the myriad domestic and international problems facing his government.
The latest example is the way in which the Israeli prime minister has, so far at least, personally surmounted the Beirut massacre issue. In his testimony Nov. 8 before the inquiry commission investigating the Sabra-Shatila massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese right-wing militiamen, he has carefully placed himself outside of any responsibility.
He repeated that he was not party to sending the Christian militiamen into the camps and that he knew nothing of the massacre until he heard a radio broadcast hours after it was over.
Nevertheless, the commission members have shown skepticism about his judgment - raising for the first time the possibility that Mr. Begin might come in for some criticism by the panel.
The commissioners showed surprise that Defense Minister Ariel Sharon had not specifically cleared the Phalange assignment with Begin, especially in the aftermath of the assassination of Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayel.
They also challenged Mr. Begin's contention that no key military or political leader had imagined that a massacre might occur. One commission member noted Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan's comments at the Sept. 16 Cabinet meeting that the Phalange were ''sharpening their knives'' and were ripe for ''revenge.''
Mr. Begin seemed interested in projecting collective government responsiblity for the events without blaming any individual. He stressed that no minister complained at the key Sept. 16 Cabinet meeting about the planned Phalangist entry.
Even should the commission fault him for errors of judgment, political analysts here believe Mr. Begin will retain his personal popularity. ''People respect him. Unlike Sharon, he is seen to be clean, a man of integrity,'' explained political analyst Mahum Barnea.
Analysts attribute this in large part to the Likud party's strong standing in the polls, despite pressing domestic and foreign problems. A Hanoch Smith poll in the daily Maariv, taken in the second half of October and released last week, showed the Likud with 44 percent of the vote, up from 40 percent in the July 1981 election. The opposition Labor Party dropped 9.5 percent to 28 percent.
So far, Mr. Begin seems unscathed by decreasing popular support for the war in Lebanon. Israeli troops remain bogged down there and continue to take casualties without the expected return of a Lebanese-Israeli peace treaty. But Begin still draws cheers for having removed the threat of rocket attack from Israel's northern settlements. And Israelis do not yet appear unduly worried by deteriorating relations with Egypt - the public has long since become resigned to minimal hopes for normalization - or with the United States.
Mr. Begin has also been remarkably successful so far in deflecting discontent among his supporters over the state of the economy. Real wages in the public sector declined by 6 percent during the first half of 1982 and war-fueled inflation has jumped to about 130 percent. Exports, already weakened by world economic doldrums, are still dropping, creating a projected trade deficit of $5 billion. Tourism, affected by the war, is sharply off.
Mr. Begin is also willing to compromise. Despite his ministers' desire to close the unprofitable national airline, El Al, negotiations were resumed when striking staff shut down Ben Gurion International Airport.
Mr. Begin has also been aided by the weakness and internal wrangling of the opposition. ''His biggest strength is (Labor Party leader Shimon) Peres' image as a loser,'' complained a morose Labor supporter.