Ariel Sharon vs. Time: A personal perspective

I went from reporting stories to becoming a part of the story – and I didn’t enjoy it at all.

Ariel Sharon a week after the Yom Kippur War cease-fire. (photo credit: Emanuel A. Winston)
Ariel Sharon a week after the Yom Kippur War cease-fire.
(photo credit: Emanuel A. Winston)

It is rare for a journalist to become part of a story itself – yet I did; and I have Ariel Sharon to thank for it. Sharon’s libel suit against Time magazine turned me and my colleagues from news reporters into news items. For eight years before Sharon sued my employer, Time, for libel, I had worked as a reporter in the Jerusalem bureau, covering all sorts of stories, never landing in any controversy, and without being part of a lawsuit. But when Sharon filed his suit against Time in June 1983, I went from reporting stories to becoming a portion of the story – and I didn’t enjoy it at all.

For the past 29 years, I have not uttered a word in public about Sharon’s law suit, and the subsequent trial, against Time because at the time of the trial in 1984 and 1985, I was under instructions from my editors in New York to refer all queries to the magazine’s public relations department in New York. For 29 years, I have interpreted those instructions to mean that I should keep silent about the case for life. But now, after Sharon has left the stage, I decided that enough years have passed to allow me to reveal something about my personal role in his $50 million law suit against Time.
Sharon’s case against Time was one of the biggest international stories at the time, pitting a military hero against one of the major media conglomerates. Both sides employed the most high-powered lawyers in the US. And the case drew constant media attention.
Sharon sued Time for libel over a February 21, 1983 cover story entitled, “The Verdict Is Guilty: An Israeli Commission Apportions the Blame for the Beirut Massacre.” There were three bylines on the story: Jerusalem bureau chief Harry Kelly, and reporters David Halevy and Robert Slater. I loved getting bylines in Time; but as it would turn out, not this time.
From the very start of the case, I was confident that I would play no more than a peripheral role in what was about to unfold. After all, I had not contributed the information that was at the heart of the suit.
Sharon’s attorneys, I assumed, would leave me alone. But the fact that I had a byline on the story in question made me nervous.
Might I be called to testify in the trial? If I was, what would I say? Would I be asked questions that would make me squirm? Just as Time had the best lawyers in town, I knew that Sharon would have lawyers who might put Perry Mason to shame.
The trial took place in the Federal District Court in Manhattan, starting in November 1984, and focused on Sharon’s assertion that the Time cover story falsely portrayed him – at the time he was minister of defense – as instigating the 1982 massacre of Palestinian civilians by Christian Phalangist militiamen at two refugee camps on the outskirts of Beirut.
Time wrote that Sharon’s deep involvement in the massacre was mentioned in a secret appendix to an Israeli commission’s official report on the incidents. Contending that the secret appendix did not contain any such accusation against Sharon, his attorneys argued that if what Time had written about Sharon was true, it would amount to an accusation that an Israeli hero was responsible for “mass murder.’’ I RECALL only a few details of the way we functioned at the Jerusalem bureau in the months before the trial. One recollection involves having to photocopy many of the files we had sent from the bureau for the previous few years; typically, we sent raw material that we called files to editors in New York who wrote the final drafts of the stories.
For the life of me I could not understand why so many of these photocopied files had to be handed over to Sharon’s attorneys. Our attorneys were certainly living in the fast lane. As Thanksgiving 1984 approached, they scooped up lots of those files, flew to New York for the holiday, and were back in the bureau Monday morning eager to obtain even more files.
Another detail I recall was the fact that Thomas Barr, one of the most famous attorneys in America at the time, and Time’s lead lawyer for the Sharon trial, used my desk when working in the Jerusalem bureau. I was flattered and excited by my proximity to this obviously great legal mind. I did not get close to Barr; but I did begin a strong friendship with another Time magazine attorney, Robert Rifkind, a charming, mild-mannered man who helped comfort me during these troubling moments. His greatest claim to fame came when, as a second-year associate, he argued an appeal by The Legal Aid Society in the Miranda vs. Arizona landmark decision that said the state cannot interrogate criminal suspects without informing them of their right to counsel.
Being on the periphery of a major legal case can still be exasperating. The most agonizing event for me personally occurred five months before the trial – in June 1984 – when Sharon’s lawyers deposed me for three days in a Manhattan law office. I barely knew what a deposition was; I had hardly ever been in a law office. And here were these high-flying, sharp-edged attorneys in their $2,000 suits and with their piles of documents grilling me on the procedures of the Time Jerusalem bureau as if we reporters had been planning an armed bank heist.
It did not help my disposition that I had not slept on the 11-hour plane ride from Tel Aviv to New York, had a terrible headache, and that however much I assured myself of my peripheral role in the case, I came to believe that Sharon’s lawyers blamed me personally for what Time wrote.
As I was the first of the reporters in the Jerusalem bureau to be deposed, I had the dubious distinction of having to answer questions about conversations I had had with other reporters in the bureau. I answered their questions honestly and fully; but, I am sure to the attorneys’ disappointment, when they asked me talk about how the controversial information got into the story, I told them the truth – that I had not supplied the information for that paragraph and could not say with any certainty how the information got into the story.
I explained that although my byline appeared on the story in question, that did not mean I had anything to do with giving the controversial information to Time’s editors.
Sharon’s lawyers obviously believed me, for I was not called to testify in the eight-week trial itself.
Jerusalem bureau chief Kelly, and reporter Halevy did travel to New York to take part in the trial, so I was left behind as acting bureau chief. That seemingly august title made me Time’s man in Israel and journalists fired questions at me left and right, day and night, as if I was their deep throat. I was not allowed to say a word about the case, temporarily placing my friendships with these journalists on hold. Suddenly I realized what it was like for a news source to clam up and seem evasive, suspicious and swarmy.
In the months before the trial, Jerusalem was seething. Israel had long been willing to abide the foreign media basing its correspondents in the country, writing freely about what they saw and heard. But for a major international media outlet like Time to take on Israel’s most controversial military and political figure was to come close to wearing out the welcome mat.
SO CONCERNED were Time’s editors in New York about the situation that they actually feared I could be the victim of violence just for working for the Jerusalem bureau. One editor from New York, visiting the bureau, asked me if I thought the magazine should hire bodyguards for me. I did not know of any specific threat against me, nor did the editor.
Still, the very fact that an editor had asked me if I felt I needed a bodyguard was troubling.
For the first time in the case, I was bewildered and a little nervous. Until then, I had thought living on the periphery gave me immunity to the less pleasant aspects of the legal tangle with Sharon. I took a nanosecond to reply to the editor that the last thing I wanted was a bodyguard because some lunatic eying me with a bodyguard and identifying me as a Time reporter might just decide that it would be fun to take me on. Listening to me, understanding the validity of my arguments, the editor backed off. There would be no bodyguards.
Sharon had a lot of sympathy among the right wing, many of whom believed that the foreign media was out to get Israel. The Time story, in their eyes, substantiated such feelings. But Sharon faced an uphill battle in the legal case, as American libel law favors journalists over plaintiffs in cases involving public figures.
Even as Sharon showed that the Time article defamed him and that the magazine had published the allegations while having serious doubts about their veracity, he still lost the case. The judge asked the jury to consider three questions: Was the story true? Did the reporter know it was not true? And had the report been published out of malice, out of a plan to harm Sharon? For Sharon to win the jury would have had to say yes to all three.
The only way to prove malice would have been to produce a smoking gun, for example a tape recording of the reporter acknowledging that he planned to use the article to harm Sharon. But no such smoking gun existed.
Although the jury answered yes to the first two questions, it could find no proof of malice.
Because he lost the case, Sharon was not awarded a penny.
At the time of the trial, Time’s editors in New York kept asking me if I thought Sharon would one day become prime minister. I responded that would not happen. I based my answer on what I thought was solid evidence, namely that when primary elections had been held in his Likud Party, he did not fare well.
It was another example of the folly of making predictions about events in the Middle East.
When Sharon became prime minister in 2001 and served for the next five years in that post, I had to eat crow.
After Sharon lost his legal battle in New York, his attorneys decided to take Time on in Israel, where libel laws were far less favorable to journalists. Time’s attorneys decided that the best course was to reach a settlement with Sharon before the case reached an Israeli court. So there was no Israeli trial; there was a settlement and its details were never made public. That did not stop my journalist friends from asking me over and over: How much was Time paying Sharon as part of the settlement? I said I did not know – and I really didn’t.
When the trial was over, journalist friends asked me how it was that I had escaped with a clean record even as others at Time were being accused of various acts of journalistic recklessness. I repeated to them what I had told Sharon’s lawyers at my deposition – that I had not supplied the critical information that led to the lawsuit and that kept me on the periphery.
Over these 29 years, I have not been involved in another libel case; nor have I been threatened with libel. I have not stepped into a courtroom. And I have been able throughout all these years to cover news stories – without becoming part of them.