Background/Sharon's Fall Haunts Barak, Ben-Ami Testimony

Political fates of the two men who ran Israel a year ago could be riding on their testimony this week to a panel probing deadly rioting in Israeli Arab sector, much as Sharon's career was derailed by an inquiry in the 1980s.

Much as the career of then-defense minister Ariel Sharon was dealt a telling blow by a government inquiry commission in the 1980s, the political fates of the two men who ran Israel a year ago could be riding on their testimony this week before a panel probing deadly rioting last year in Israeli Arab sector.

It was a previous government panel - the Kahan Commission - that set a precedent for Israeli ministerial culpability by ruling that Sharon bore indirect responsibility for the actions of Lebanese Christian Phalangist militiamen in the 1982 revenge massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatilla.

The Or Commission, which has spent much of this year probing the deaths of 13 Israeli Arabs in clashes with police in October, 2000, is to call former prime minister Ehud Barak to the witness stand as early as Tuesday to hear testimony over the government's handling of the rioting in Arab towns within Israel. On Monday, Barak's minister of public security, Shlomo Ben-Ami, stood in the dock, fielding tough questions over his performance as the government official with formal responsibility over the actions of the police.

Going on the offensive against widespread contentions that he let police business slide while concentrating on his other cabinet role - that of acting foreign minister during feverish, ultimately doomed peace talks with the Palestinians - Ben-Ami told the panel that his diplomatic efforts were meant in part to address some of the root causes of the distress of Israeli Arabs. He also blamed police brass for denying him relevant intelligence information over the plans of Israeli Arab leaders.

If the customarily suave Ben-Ami appeared ill at ease during the hours of interrogation, the Sharon precedent may have played a role. Although the violent incidents under examination were drastically different, the precedent of ministerial responsibility for the actions of riflemen in the field may have a direct bearing on the future careers of both Ben-Ami and Barak.

Ha'aretz legal commentator Ze'ev Segal notes that the two former ministers will be addressed as witnesses and not as defendants, and that the panel cannot order punishment even if it rules that the two bear a degree of responsibility for the killings. Even so, Segal says, the findings and conclusions of a governmental commission of inquiry "are enough to seal the public fate of public officials, at least for a very long time."

Sharon, viewed by many as then-prime minister Menachem Begin's heir-apparent in the Likud government of the early 1980s, was forced to leave the influential post of defense minister in the wake of the Kahan Commission findings. His career was effectively derailed for nearly two decades, and by the time his star rose again as Barak fought a losing battle to curb the Palestinian uprising, he was seen to have risen from the political dead.

Segal states that it was the Kahan Commission that spelled out in practical terms the degree of responsibility borne by the political echelon. "From the standpoint of principles, it is the (Kahan) commission that determined the foundations of personal responsibility according to which the Or Commission will weigh Barak and Ben-Ami's actions and blunders, if any."