How did Menachem Begin’s Cabinet handle the truth about the Sabra and Shatila massacre?
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 Now that the government-mandated 30-year cooling period has passed, we are able to share this fascinating, troubling, historical document with the public and know, at last, what the ministers said.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.
It was only at the end of the third day that Begin finally presented his position: that the recommendations of the commission were essentially a command. “We can only accept the recommendations,” he said. “That’s the rule. We accepted the recommendations when we appointed the commission. Those are the rules. To the best of my understanding, there is no other way.” When he called the vote, everyone except Sharon lined up with him. According to the transcript, no one said anything. They simply voted and adjourned.
The most important insight these documents provide is that the ministers—Begin included—didn’t really recognize the severity of the crisis in Israeli society. They knew they hadn’t authorized the Phalangists to massacre civilians and certainly hadn’t intended that outcome. The Kahan Commission had exonerated them in that it, too, had found no Israeli intention, and no direct Israeli involvement. This exoneration—and their future political fortune—was their main concern.
The transcripts reveal that the commotion outside the prime minister’s office walls either mystified or angered the politicians inside. Since their behavior had been reasonable and the Phalangists were the criminals, what was all the fuss about? It must be demagoguery and cynicism by their political rivals in Israel, and anti-Semitism by the rest of the world. As Minister of the Interior Dr. Josef Burg put it the first evening: “The anti-Semites are having a festival.” The next evening, Burg talked about the potential for a putsch. Yitzhak Shamir told the group that “European media” were using the Kahan Commission findings against Israel, writing that even an Israeli commission had determined that Israel “was to blame for the massacres.”
They were aware, of course, that the public was severely roiled. Sharon came late to one of the meetings because a large demonstration at his ranch near Sderot delayed him. On the third evening, Minister of Health Eliezer Shostak expressed his fear that “Peace Now demonstrators are preparing to attack Cabinet ministers in their homes.” Yet there was no soul searching, no self-questioning, and no attempt to genuinely understand why the protesters were so passionate. In all the hours of their meetings, there was but one moment when the term soul-searching—heshbon nefesh—was even mentioned. Zvulun Hamer of the National Religious Party approvingly quoted Zorach Wahrhaftig, a retired minister from his party, who had expressed understanding for the public’s anger:
Much of the public believes that our security problems are more important than considerations of injustice against others. We, in their opinion, live under permanent threat of terror here and abroad, and in these conditions, when our enemies are devoid of any moral considerations, why do we need to be so careful and sensitive if they then kill each other even if we’re partially in control? Yet another significant part of the public, and I among them, believe there’s a difference and there must be a difference between the behavior of our enemies and our own. More is expected of us, and we should demand more of ourselves.
Hamer didn’t take this point any further. He made no comment as to whether Israel had lived up to the expectations, and none of the other ministers ever related to his point. It simply wasn’t a part of the discussion.
Sharon, who was the only Cabinet member whose head was on the block, and who, as defense minister, had been the architect of the war in Lebanon, was a central figure in the deliberations. But he came and went, and other ministers sometimes complained that he wasn’t in the room when they had their say. On the first evening, he hardly spoke, though he did say he accepted the findings of the commission. The second evening he was late, but when he spoke it was mostly to complain that soldiers were to be sanctioned despite decades of national service. On the third evening, he expressed a dramatic change of heart about the commission’s findings, explaining that in the interval he had had time to study the report carefully. He now rejected the Kahan Commission’s central thesis—that Israel’s leaders and generals should have foreseen the danger of allowing the Phalangists into the camps, and by failing to do so they bore indirect responsibility for the murders. The findings must be rejected, Sharon argued:
More than 20 witnesses told the commission they hadn’t foreseen the criminal actions of the Phalangists: The Prime Minster testified that we didn’t foresee the atrocities; the Foreign Minister testified; I testified; the Chief of Staff testified—he even went further and said that had we foreseen what happened he wouldn’t have let them in. … All of the officers who testified said the same. We all testified under oath. Yet the commission writes that we all should have foreseen the consequences. … So what did we do? We must have told untruths, perhaps we even lied. … So you’ll understand, my colleagues of the cabinet, why we must reject this section of the report. … What’s the most serious thing they say about me? Not that I joined the Phalangists, or that I personally killed anyone. Mr. Prime Minister. I don’t think I did anything wrong. I wished to protect the lives of our troops [by not sending them into the crowded camps]. That had to be my main consideration. … None of us expected the result, and had we done so we wouldn’t have sent anyone into the camps; but to say that I shouldn’t have considered the safety of our troops? That had to be our main consideration. With all due respect, Mr. Prime Minister, I don’t think that’s an offense I need to resign over.
Throughout the three-day series of meetings, the country had been wracked by demonstrations and counter-demonstrations. As the third evening of deliberations advanced, word began seeping in of violence outside the window. Right around 9 p.m., an aide announced that there had been an attack. A bit later, he updated the Cabinet and said that people had been wounded. Finally, he came in and announced one demonstrator had been killed and several had been injured.
This third announcement came as Burg was speaking; no one knew at the time that his own son was among the wounded. He paused and then announced he would continue. When Burg finished, Begin stopped the proceedings: “Someone has been killed! A dead Jew! How can we continue with the meeting?”
But tellingly, when he concluded the meeting, Begin focused not on the result of the decisions made by his government, not on the hundreds of Muslim victims, not on the dead Jewish demonstrator, but on his own misfortune:
Simply, none of us ever imagined! I’m saying this for the protocol; I’m not going to repeat any of my statement to the press. It didn’t occur to anyone. A calamity befell us, a tragedy happened to us. As calamities can fall upon people so they can on governments too, and this one stalked us and found us. And now we’ve got these recommendations and they’re very painful.
Yet painful as it was for him, Begin insisted that the government had no choice but to accept the findings. And so he called a vote, and the Cabinet, save Ariel Sharon, adopted the commission’s recommendations in their entirety.
Maybe there’s nothing surprising in this transcription: A group of politicians, securely surrounded by like-minded politicians, reassure themselves that their understanding of the world is sound and intact and that there’s no need for doubt or self-examination. They explain away the passion of their detractors as misguided at best, or devious and machinating at worst. Their motivation for accepting the report wasn’t justice or that they thought they were wrong, but political considerations. Maybe their reaction is merely standard political thinking, remarkable only for the unusually stark context.