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Israel's Saving Grace

TAKING SIDES

By Antony J. Blinken

ISRAELIS OF ALL political persuasions are living a New Year of shame in the aftermath of last week's massacre of innocent Palestinian refugees. As the details slowly emerge, it seems clear some members of the military knew of the carnage undertaken by the Christian militia from its start. But the horrors of Shatila and Sabra obscure what we must hope will be the Jewish state's eventual salvation: a working, vibrant democracy.

It is striking that the harshest critics of the Begin government in this sordid fiasco are Jews, not Gentiles; Israelis, not the Diaspora. Nor were those assailing the government exclusively members of the Labor opposition. The right-win newspaper Maariv wrote: "This whole affair, which outrages and disgusts, cannot be ended simply by a statement of sorrow. Someone is responsible here and has to take the consequences." And Eitan Haber, military correspondent for the pro-Begin paper Yediot Ahronot claimed: "Government ministers and senior commanders already knew during the hours of Thursday night and Friday morning that a terrible massacre was taking place...and they did not lift a finger to prevent the massacre until Saturday morning."

Israel is not, has never been, nor will ever be the irreproachable, perfectly moral state some of its supporters would like to see. Israelis are, after all, only human. Still, one pedestal the Jewish state can stand on--and stand on alone in the Middle East--is that of a democracy. Yes, there are tragic excesses in the occupied territories. True, the invasion of Lebanon claimed many innocent lives. The fact remains, though, that Israelis question themselves and their government openly and honestly. Eventually, as in other democracies, those responsible for wrongdoing are held accountable.

In recent years, the pluralism prevalent in Israel has been seemingly ignored by Prime Minister Menachem Begin and hence hidden from the world at large. By reminding Gentiles of the Holocaust and constantly invoking solidarity among Jews, the Prime Minister has managed to guide Israel by his firm hand alone. At times, Begin's "the hell with everyone else" attitude was worthy of admiration. By bombing the Iraqui nuclear reactor, for example, Israel sacrificed popularity for safety. As former Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban has said, "Better to be unpopular than dead."

But with the campaign in Lebanon, Begin began to push his luck. Now, indirect involvement in the slaughter of Palestinians may suffice to topple the government. Indeed, Begin's Energy Minister Yitzhak Berman has already handed in his resignation. Other members of the cabinet--including Deputy Foreign Minister Yehuda Ben-Meir and Education Minister Zvulun Hammer--are reportedly thinking of quitting. And in Parliament, the Prime Minister's shaky coalition would have much trouble surviving a no-confidence vote. So Begin may be on his way out.

That would be logical, Israelis had given him free reign to run their country as he saw fit. The Prime Minister's mistakes, though, could cost Israel more friends than it can realistically afford to lose. There comes a point when neglecting popularity becomes unsafe; support abroad dwindles, backing at home follows suit. And therein lies the danger for Begin: Israelis are beginning to see themselves as the world sees them. A democracy will not long stand for self-hatred.

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