Secrets From Israel’s Archives
How did Menachem Begin’s Cabinet handle the truth about the Sabra and Shatila massacre? Here are the transcripts.
A year and a half ago, I took over as Israel’s state archivist—and thus came to administer hundreds of millions of documents that tell the story of the Jewish state’s history and the actions of its governments. Our primary goal has been to digitize and bring to light as many of these documents as possible. Putting entire warehouses of documents online will take years. But in the meantime, we’ve begun to upload specific documents of great interest so as to enliven Israel’s public discourse and strengthen its democracy.
What follows is one such example: the transcripts of the top-secret Cabinet deliberations of February 1983, in which Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s Cabinet grappled with the truth about the massacre at Sabra and Shatila—and the tragic death of a left-wing protester at the hands of another Jewish Israeli outside the prime minister’s office during the deliberations. Now that the government-mandated 30-year cooling period has passed, we are able to share this fascinating, troubling, historical document with the public and know, at last, what the ministers said. (The full 250-page trove can be found here, and we’ll be posting translated segments of the documents here over the next few days.)
First, a bit of historical background. In June 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon, determined to end a campaign of terrorist attacks carried out by the Palestine Liberation Organization, which was, for all intents and purposes, controlling the south of that country. The PLO decision to recognize Israel’s existence still lay five years in the future, and the initial stages of the campaign enjoyed widespread support by Israelis. Yet as the hostilities drew out over the summer and the battles moved from the hills north of Galilee to the outskirts of Beirut, the national consensus weakened. As IDF troops poised to attack positions in the heart of West Beirut, it shattered: The goal of forcing the PLO away from the border had already been achieved, and many Israelis feared that Israel was overreaching.
In September, Lebanese President-Elect Bachir Gemayel, leader of the Christian Phalange forces that were supported by Israel, was assassinated by Syrian proxies. Israeli forces stationed in Christian East Beirut moved into Muslim West Beirut and allowed Phalange forces into the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. On Sept. 16-17, 1982, the Phalangists massacred hundreds of civilians in the camps. The question that hung over the massacre was whether Israel had a hand in the murders—or, at the very least, knowingly turned a blind eye while their allies slaughtered innocents.
With the news of the massacre, the tension in Israel about the war exploded into political fury. Begin and his government vehemently rejected responsibility for the murders. The opposition held a gigantic rally in Tel Aviv demanding a commission of inquiry, and on Sept. 28, the government appointed a commission, headed by Israel’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Yitzhak Kahan.
The Kahan Commission submitted its findings and recommendations on Feb. 7, 1983. It exonerated Israel of immediate responsibility for the massacres but found it indirectly responsible for failing to foresee the danger of allowing the Phalangists into the camps. Begin, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, and Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan were censured, while the commission recommended that then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, as well as two generals—the head of military intelligence and the commander of the division stationed in Beirut—be relieved of their posts.
Then the agonizing wait began: Would the government accept the recommendations of the Kahan Commission? Would it reject them? Or would the coalition collapse and new elections be declared?
Israelis love to argue about politics and generally do so with an intensity that often startles foreigners. Their body language, tone, and vocabulary would be unacceptable almost anywhere else. Yet with a small number of exceptions—memorable precisely because they’re so unusual—the arguments rarely descend into violence. But since the public debate about accepting reparations from Germany in the early 1950s, there hadn’t been such fraught political tension between the camp of the political left, vehement in its indignation at the government for having sullied Israel’s name; and the camp of the political right, furious at the left and the world for its damnation of a government engaged in just war with its sworn enemies.
On the evening of Feb. 8, the Cabinet convened at the prime minister’s office, but despite deliberating for hours, they made no decision about the Kahan Commission’s recommendations. Likewise on Feb. 9. Meantime, as the nation waited, strangers screamed at each other on street corners, and an atmosphere of dread—or was it doom?—permeated every corner of the public sphere.
On the afternoon of Feb. 10, a column of Peace Now demonstrators marched from Jerusalem’s city center to the prime minister’s office, demanding that the Cabinet adopt the Kahan Commision’s recommendations. They were jeered, jostled, and threatened by the government’s supporters. At 9 p.m., as the Cabinet was deliberating for its third consecutive evening and the crowds howled at each other, a right-wing defender of the Begin government named Yona Avrushmi hurled a grenade into the crowd. Emil Grunzweig, a 35-year-old peace activist, was killed, and nine of his comrades were wounded. They included Avraham Burg, future speaker of the Knesset from the Labor Party, and Yuval Steinitz, future minister of finance in a Likud government.
You would think the Cabinet would have adjourned in the face of this violence. But no. It continued to deliberate for more than an hour after Grunzweig was killed. Were its members agonizing? Were they seeking a way to reject the recommendations? Were they horrified by the torn state of the nation and dismayed by the violence taking place outside their window? What were they waiting for? Didn’t they see what was happening? When, later that night, they finally voted 16 to 1 to accept the commission’s recommendations, was it the blood on the sidewalk that ended their indecisiveness?
The simple explanation for the prolonged deliberations, which can be found in the transcripts, is banal: technicalities. At the first meeting, on Feb. 8, most of the speakers agreed that having appointed the commission in September, there was no way the government could turn around and reject its findings. Indeed, as the meeting wound down, the Cabinet members asked Begin if it wasn’t time to vote. Begin wanted them to think one more day but justified the delay on the absence of Shamir, who was scheduled to return next morning from abroad. By the end of the second evening, with Shamir now in the room, some of the ministers were wavering, and they put off the moment of decision by noting that the two generals whom the commission recommended to be replaced, Yehoshua Sagie and Amos Yaron, deserved an opportunity to present their case before the group.
Each Purim, star academics like Milton Friedman and Alan Dershowitz debate: latkes or hamantaschen?