CLOSE ENCOUNTER: Ariel Sharon and Me

January 14, 2014 at 1:40 am Leave a comment

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, died Saturday (January 11) eight years after a massive stroke put him in a deep coma.

Nearly 30 years ago our paths crossed in a New York courtroom.

Ariel Sharon in xxxx. (Photo by Jim Wallace, Smithsonian Institution)

Ariel Sharon in 1998.
(Photo by Jim Wallace, Smithsonian Institution)

Sharon, who had been a political and military leader for nearly the entire 65-year history of the State of Israel, was praised by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair at a state memorial service in Israel on Monday (January 13). At the same time, Palestinians in Gaza and parts of the West Bank celebrated the death of one of their most reviled enemies. In the 1950s he commanded a commando outfit, known as Unit 101, that launched reprisal attacks against Palestinian guerrillas. In the 1970s, 80s and 90s he espoused building Israeli settlements in the disputed West Bank area.

Sharon joined the Haganah, the underground paramilitary force that was the precurser to the Israeli Defense Forces in the 1940s. He rose to command in Israel’s wars with its Arab neighbors in 1948, 1956, 1973 and 1982.

The Litigant

It was an allegation about what he did or didn’t do in that last conflict that caused our paths to cross in the Fall and Winter of 1984-85 at the federal courthouse for the Southern District of New York. Sharon was suing Time magazine for libel — and $50 million — and your 4GWAR editor, then a reporter with the Associated Press in New York, covered the trial.

Sharon claimed he had been libeled by a 1983 Time magazine article about a massacre at two Palestinian refugee camps in Israeli-occupied West Beirut. The attack, which killed hundreds, was conducted by Lebanese Christian militiamen seeking revenge for the assassination of their leader Bashir Gemayel. No Israeli troops were involved.

The lawsuit all came down to a single paragraph in the Time story which indicated Sharon, then Israel’s defense minister, had given the Gemayel militiamen the go-ahead to attack the camps, where women and children, as well as fighting men, were killed. Sharon denied the allegation and went on the offensive in a case packed with high drama. The rotund former general was a feisty witness who gave as good as he got from Time’s lawyers. His chief accuser, Time correspondent David Halevy, had been a tank commander under Sharon in the ’73 war.  The federal judge, Abraham Sofaer, negotiated with the Israeli government about releasing a classifed report about the massacre. Sharon’s trench-coated bodyguards frequently set off the metal detector as they entered the courtroom  but neither they nor the federal marshals guarding the door would say if the two Israeli security men were armed. However, they did reflexively reach under their coats when jostling TV camera crews on the courthouse steps sent a newspaper reporter flying into Sharon as he exited the building.

The Wait

One day outside the courtroom, Sharon was pelted with questions in Hebrew by Israeli reporters. Answering in Hebrew he pointed up toward the ceiling. When the Israelis pressed him, he pulled a black yarmulke, the skull cap Jews wear in the synagogue. When we American reporters pumped them about what had been said, the Israelis told us Sharon had said even if he did not win, his accusers would have to answer to a higher court — pointing toward Heaven. When some of the Israelis questioned whether he was really that pious, Sharon dug the yarmulke out of his pocket, proffered it and gave a “What do you think?” shrug.

Everything was complicated about the case — even the verdict. The jury had to make three separate findings: was the Time report false? They deemed it was? Was it defamatory and had Time been careless or reckless about publishing it? Again, the jury said yes. While waiting for the jury’s decision on the final legal requirement — Was the false and defamatory paragraph published with malice? — I asked Halevy if he was worried. He replied that the tense wait for the jury was nothing compared to receiving orders in 1973 to send his outnumbered tank unit to attack a line of Egyptian tanks in the Sinai.

On January 24, 1985 the jury decided the article had not been published with malice but jurors also issued a statement chiding Time for sloppy reporting and fact-checking. Both sides claimed victory at dueling news conferences on the courthouse steps.

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Entry filed under: Counter Terrorism, National Security and Defense, News Developments, SHAKO, Special Operations, Unconventional Warfare. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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