For former Israeli defence minister Ariel Sharon, last week brought two victories as satisfying as any he has won on the battlefield. After eight weeks and 14 witnesses, the jury in the $50-million (U.S.) Sharon vs. Time Inc. libel suit decided that a paragraph in a Time cover story on Feb. 21, 1983, had indeed defamed the fiery general. It implied, the jury said, that Sharon had “consciously intended” to inspire a brutal massacre by Christian Phalangists of hundreds of Palestinian refugees during Israel’s 1982 siege of Beirut. And two days later the jury found that the disputed 113-word reference in the story was false. Sharon’s lawyer, Milton Gould, who took the case without charge at the request of American Jewish organizations, pronounced himself “delighted” with the jury’s decisions. And on the steps of the federal courthouse in Lower Manhattan, Sharon himself derided Time—which substantially stands by its story—for “shouting that the jury does not understand plain English.”
The jury’s verdicts settled two of three key questions in the case, and at week’s end the six jurors were sequestered pondering the third issue: whether Time published the story with “malice” or with “reckless disregard for the facts.” Under U.S. libel law a finding of defamation and falsehood is not enough to ensure a plaintiff’s victory. Only findings against the magazine on all three issues would lead to a further stage of the trial: the determination of a cash reward for Sharon’s injured reputation.
The focus of the often-bitter libel trial was, in fact, the one paragraph in Time’s cover story on the findings of the Kahan commission—the Israeli government’s investigation of the bloodbath in Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in September, 1982. It was based on information gathered from still-undisclosed sources by Time’s Jerusalem correspondent David Halevy. In the contested paragraph Time declared that a secret “Appendix B” of the commission’s report contained an account of a meeting held between Sharon and the powerful Gemayel family one day after an assassin’s bomb killed Bashir Gemayel, the clan’s scion and, at the time, the president-elect of Lebanon.
“Sharon,” Time wrote, “reportedly told the Gemayels that the Israeli Army would be moving into West Beirut and that he expected the Christian forces to
go into the Palestinian refugee camps. Sharon also reportedly discussed with the Gemayels the need for the Phalangists to take revenge for the assassination of Bashir, but the details of the conversation are not known.” One day later the Phalangist militia did, in fact, enter the refugee camps, and the killings began. Sharon admitted that he met with the Gemayels but denied that the subject of revenge was raised.
Lawyers representing the magazine and Sharon jointly examined Appendix B earlier this month in Israel but found no details of the “revenge” discussion. As well, Israeli authorities denied Time’s requests to see other secret Israeli documents. As a result, Time’s edition last week contained a rare “correction” conceding an “error” about Appendix B while reaffirming the substance of the story. Argued the magazine: u Time’s sources for what was said at those meetings remain confidential, but as recently as two weeks ago they confirmed once again to Time that revenge had been discussed.”
Last week Time’s managing editor, Ray Cave, came to the courthouse and gave his reaction to the jury’s verdict to reporters covering the trial. He insisted that even if he could rewrite the disputed paragraph, he would only change it to say that talk of revenge could be found “in secret testimony” taken by the Is-
raeli commission, not in Appendix B. Declared Cave: “We have continuing great confidence in our sources.” Should the jury find that Time’s reporting was either malicious or reckless, an appeal by the magazine would likely argue that the Israeli government has suppressed material that would have helped Time’s defence.
Clearly, the verdict in Sharon’s favor on the first two counts is likely to help clear a political reputation that has been tarnished for two years. It might even help rekindle his dream of becoming Israel’s prime minister at the head of the Likud party. The Kahan report had, after all, found Sharon indirectly responsible for the Beirut massacres because he had authorized the Phalangist militia to enter the camp. But the Time story, by speculating beyond the report’s public conclusions, in effect gave Sharon an easy target. Thomas Barr, Time’s lawyer, suggested exactly that in his concluding arguments. Sharon, Barr contended, “had to fight somebody. He could not sue the commission. It had already gone out of business. He picked out this one paragraph and said, ‘That is the way I am going to wash my hands clean of this terrible, terrible mess.’ ” Even before the jury reaches a decision on the third count, Sharon came a long way last week toward doing just that.
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