Israel’s State Archives has published in recent weeks transcripts from cabinet meetings held by Menachem Begin’s government about the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon in September 1982, and about the report of the Kahan Commission that investigated the massacre and was published in February 1983. The Kahan report led to the removal of Ariel Sharon from his position as defense minister and forced the government to end Rafael Eitan’s term as IDF Chief of Staff, while hurting the careers of other officers in Military Intelligence and the IDF’s ground forces. It did not damage the careers of then-Mossad chief Nahum Admoni, Begin and other political leaders, with the exception of Sharon, who were legally cautioned at the beginning of the inquiry.
In acting against Sharon, the Kahan Commission decided not to imitate its predecessor, the Agranat Commission of Inquiry into the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which had recommended only the removal of army officers and spared the politicians. One of the lessons subsequent governments learned from the Kahan Commission report was to prevent to the extent possible the appointment of government commissions of inquiry. Members of these commissions are chosen by the president of Israel’s High Court of Justice and governments find it hard to avoid implementing their recommendations. Consequently, the Olmert and Netanyahu governments appointed much weaker committees to review the conduct of the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and the Turkish flotilla affair in 2010.
The initiative taken by the State Archives in publishing the Sabra and Shatila transcripts is praiseworthy. It adds to the public’s knowledge and shows what was known by those in charge of national security at the time and what they were thinking, both about each other and the topics under discussion. The benefit of this goes far beyond merely satisfying historical curiosity.
Public figures manage to survive and persevere in the Israeli political arena for a long time. Sharon, 18 years after he was disqualified from holding the defense portfolio, was elected prime minister. Just this past week, testimonies in the files on the Bus 300 hijacking scandal were revealed (by reporter Gidi Weitz in the Hebrew edition of Haaretz).
Yet President Shimon Peres, who was implicated in the belated government response to the Bus 300 affair (even if he wasn’t involved in the actual debacle itself), and who was involved in countless other government and national security scandals, has continued to serve in senior government positions for 60 years, ever since being appointed director-general of the Defense Ministry. Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have been in the public eye for roughly three decades. They are all veterans of investigations ranging from the unnecessary death of soldiers in the Battle for Mitla Pass and the Tze’elim 2 training exercise and the intelligence fiasco at the center of the Lavon Affair, to the massacre perpetrated by Baruch Goldstein at Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs, the botched assassination attempt in Jordan against Hamas leader Khaled Meshal and the events of October 2000 at the start of the second intifada.
If there are some details found during these investigations that are still unpublished − and there is no lack of such examples regarding other public figures − it is the public’s right and obligation to know about them so they can reach their own conclusions about their significance.
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