Inquiry warnings rock Israel

Severe and unexpected shock waves are running through Israeli political circles in the wake of the Kahan Commission's warning that nine political and military figures, including the prime minister, may be ''harmed'' by its results.

The commission is investigating the circumstances of the massacre of Palestinians in Beirut's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Lebanese militiamen.

The warnings have left the nation avidly speculating on the political impact of the commission's findings, even though the outcome may not be known for weeks.

The severity of the shock is in large part due to the lack of precedent for such an event. The warnings in no way represent an indictment - they ''merely inform'' the nine that each is ''liable to be adversely affected in some way by a possible conclusion of the commission,'' said a commission spokesman. But the warnings do seem to indicate the direction of the commission's thinking.

The political repercussions of the warning are still far from clear. Sources close to the prime minister have said he will ask for new elections if the slightest criticism is directed toward him in the commission's final findings. However, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, echoed by two other Cabinet ministers, said last week that he did not think the comission would bring about the fall of the government.

Prime Minister Menachem Begin has previously sought new elections because polls show his party increasing its lead over the opposition Labor Party. Calling elections after official criticism by the Kahan Commission would, in effect, provide a court of appeals against its conclusions.

But the prime minister has been thwarted in the past because a vote of the majority of the Knesset (parliament) is required to reschedule elections. Mr. Begin's Likud coalition commands only 46 out of 120 seats. His key outside coalition partner, the National Religious Party (NRP), which lost six of 12 seats in the 1981 elections, opposes an early ballot lest it lose more.

Speculation is focused on whether in present circumstances Mr. Begin could convince the NRP to vote for new elections. The NRP is scheduled to hold internal elections in April 1983 for its first change of leadership in 11 years. Some analysts say Mr. Begin could win their support if he promised to schedule elections well after the NRP internal ballot, say, next summer.

But other observers say the NRP might bolt the Likud coalition - along with one or two splinter parties - to form a new majority coalition with Labor, rather than face a new ballot. Labor leader Shimon Peres said, after the commission's warnings, that he believes a change of government is possible with the present Knesset, but he does not rule out early elections.

The Agranat Commission, which investigated Israel's military unpreparedness for the 1973 October war, has been the standard against which many observers tried to measure the likely outcome of the present investigation. But this inquiry has proven itself dramaticaly different.

Whereas the Agranat Commission did not consider itself authorized to judge the political echelon, the Kahan Commission has broadly interpreted its mandate to explore the political leadership's role in the events surrounding the massacre.

Moreover, while the Agranat Commission held all its hearings in secret, the current commission has had 18 of 42 witnesses testify in public, including all of the Cabinet ministers concerned. While Defense Minister Sharon tried to put off the most probing questions for closed session, he was repeatedly pressed to reveal more details in public.

The commission is the sole arbiter of whether its final report will be published, subject to its judgment of security considerations. Any prosecution rests with the attorney general.

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