Massacre probe unlikely to hurt Begin

The Israeli investigation report on the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Beirut may cause less of a political impact than was earlier expected, a range of political observers say here.

With hearings completed on the investigation into the massacres at Sabra and Shatila by Christian militiamen last September, Israelis are discussing the probable political repercussions.

But the discussion is relatively low key. Pundits can only speculate until the commission report is published, probably in mid-February. And no one knows what was told in large amounts of secret testimony.

Speculation mounted when the commission issued warnings last November to nine people including Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, and Chief of Staff Raphael Eitan that they might be harmed by the investigation or its findings.

The Kahan Commission, which has aroused much admiration here and abroad for its thorough and serious approach, seems likely, from the nature of its questions, to criticize the decision-making process by which the Israeli government approved the entry of Christian militiamen into the camps.

The central questions have been:

* Who took the original decision to allow the Phalangists into the camps, and were the Cabinet and prime minister sufficiently informed and in control?

* Should the defense minister and chief of staff have expected Phalange misbehavior in the camps, given the Christians' bitter enmity toward the Palestinians?

* Were Israeli intelligence agencies consulted and was their information adequate?

* When was news of the massacre known and was action taken soon enough to halt it?

Observers here say one key to the political impact will be whether the commission contends that key politicians actively abetted the massacre or simply made errors of judgment in sending in Christian troops.

So far in public testimony, no one has proven untrue Mr. Begin's assertion that he did not know of the massacre until Saturday afternoon, Sept. 18, hours after it ended, or Mr. Sharon's that he learned only Friday evening - one full day after it began - and was told matters were under control.

More vulnerable is Chief of Staff Eitan, who was questioned closely as to why he permitted Christian troops to remain overnight in the camps long after reports of irregular killings were circulating.

Mr. Begin's personal popularity has not suffered from the inquiry. Polls show his Likud coalition still well ahead. Mr. Sharon is a much more controversial figure whose popularity in some quarters is matched by a host of political enemies. However, some informed observers believe that more than an error of judgment will be required to make his stepping down unavoidable, unless other of his activities should make him a political liability for Mr. Begin.

The public mood has been shifting on the massacre issue. Many Israelis believed throughout that the slaughter was a matter of blood feud between Arabs and should not be blamed on Israel. But even among the large number of Israelis who strongly supported the investigation, there is a growing sense of frustration that Lebanon has virtually scrapped its own inquest and that international critics direct few barbs at the actual Lebanese killers.

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