The voice of Ariel Sharon is filled with injured indignation. "Lies!" he thunders, eyes flashing. "I have to deal with them nonstop. They are all the time coming again and again, the same thing!"
The short and rotund Sharon -- one of the most powerful and controversial men in the history of Israel -- slouches deep in a hotel chair, wearing black slacks and a black Members Only windbreaker. He resembles a shorter, gray-haired Bert Lance. "All those lies." His hands roll in a circle of eternal perpetuation. "Lie after lie after lie . . .!"
Sharon's voice rises as he, by way of example, brings up one thorn: "Kibyia and Kibyia and Kibyia! Look. I didn't go into that village on my own!" His eyes show anger at the name of the West Bank village that has trailed him for 31 years. The village that -- along with Sabra and Shatila and all the other places of war and slaughter in far-off lands -- is repeatedly discussed during his $50 million landmark libel suit against Time magazine. In a trial where blame for a massacre is a central point, Kibyia won't go away.
It is the village where Sharon, then a 25-year-old Israeli warrior, led a reprisal commando raid following Arab terrorist attacks. A village where scores of civilians were killed, where a school was destroyed. Sharon denies to this day knowing people were in the houses, but the raid brought international condemnation of Israel. At the time of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre, a Time magazine article was one of many that recalled Kibyia, stating that David Ben-Gurion was forced to make a public apology for the Sharon-led raid and that Ben-Gurion castigated Sharon for his "weakness of not telling the truth." As the article was introduced into evidence, Sharon stared impassively. In an interview he vigorously denied that Ben-Gurion impugned his truthfulness. "Ben-Gurion liked me." His eyes go wide again. "I had an open door!
"Look. I didn't go to Kibyia on my own! The army decided to launch an attack. I uhhh, I uhhh," Sharon searches for the right word in his heavily accented English. "I implemented an order that I got. I never had any intention whatsoever of killing women and children!"
Sharon then addresses the mountain of criticism that has come since the 1982 slaughter of more than 700 men, women and children by Lebanese Christian Phalangists, a massacre for which an Israeli commission found Sharon guilty of "indirect responsibility." He was forced to resign as defense minister after the commission recommended dismissal for his "grave mistake." The Kahan Commission report is a stinging indictment of Sharon's actions -- and the nine-member jury hears from it often, like a drumbeat: "It is impossible to justify Sharon's disregard of the danger of a massacre . . "; "no prophetic powers were required to know that concrete danger of acts of slaughter existed . . ."; "the connection with the Phalangists was under his Sharon's constant care . . ." "They are seething with feelings of revenge," the commission quotes Israeli Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Rafael Eitan at a meeting with Sharon hours before the militia entered the camps, "and there might be rivers of blood there."
Sharon's characteristic response is blustering defiance -- a vintage art form that infuriates his critics and delights his admirers. There are legions of both in Israel, where Sharon is the center of divisive passions over that nation's present and future. The former general is seeking in this strange court and strange land the vindication he did not get from his own country. He has, in fact, said that the Kahan Commission stamped him with the "mark of Cain."
Still, Sharon has bounced back to become a major figure in the present coalition government, and a victory here would put him in a stronger position to pursue, as he has for years, his quest to become Israel's prime minister. Over and over, on the stand and in interviews, Sharon says he never accepted the conclusions of the commission. He thunders denial at every denunciation of him in print. They are all politically inspired, he contends, by his enemies.
The report is used in the courtroom in an attempt to show that Sharon is a man who followed his own course and answered to no one, including then-prime minister Menachem Begin -- "we may certainly wonder that their the Phalangists being given the task of 'mopping up' the camps seemed so unimportant that the defense minister did not inform the prime minister . . ." Sharon looks with scornful impatience at a reporter who asks why he did not inform Begin. "Put it in the right proportion." His voice is rising. "Put in the right proportion with a war going on!"
Today, Sharon characterizes the omission as sparing Begin from niggling details -- even though the commission notes that Sharon did indeed speak with him about other details hours before the Phalangists entered the camp. "The head of state is dealing with the government, the economy, foreign relations. Look. You have to put it in the right proportions." His hands move into a palms-up shrug. "It was," he says, "a small thing, a small part in a very big complicated operation."
But it is the notion that Sharon could have done something to stop the massacre and did not that so polarizes Israelis and agitates Sharon. As the report puts it, he did not take into account the likelihood of Phalangist atrocities "as a humanitarian obligation and also to prevent the political damage it would entail." And: "From the defense minister himself we know that this consideration did not concern him in the least . . ."
Asked about the sharp judgment that "humanitarian obligation" did "not concern him in the least," Sharon frowns and chops off the question in mid-sentence by a wave of his hand. "What is the most important thing of the Kahan Commission, they made it clear that no one of our soldiers, no one of our commanders, no one of our politicians was involved in any of those massacres or atrocities!"
It is one of the few times that Sharon uses the word massacres. He more often refers to what took place in the refugee camps as those "tragic events."
As he fields questions concerning all the negatives written about him, Sharon becomes contentious. "May I tell you something?" Sharon slows down, the eyes narrow slightly. "I don't have time to sue everyone because I would have to spend the rest of my life suing all those liars -- who copied all those lies one after the other." Man and Wife
Sharon's home during the trial is a Park Lane hotel suite high above Manhattan. Far below, Central Park looks like a child's toy park. His cold-eyed bodyguards reluctantly let a cleared visitor pass their checkpoint. His second wife, Lili, who has referred to herself as the Lily of Sharon, pleasantly offers tea.
It is Lili who, after days of sizing up the reporter, persuaded Sharon to give the interview. It is Lili who is also the protector. "After all he's been through he has to have, how do you say in English? A safe place."
Lili, 46, 10 years younger than her husband, has known Sharon since she was a child. Sharon has known the violence of wars all his life, but the violence in his personal life takes on near biblical proportions. Lili's sister was Sharon's first wife. "He was like an uncle," says Lili, her eyes shining as she recalls the dashing officer of her past. Lili's sister was killed at 29, in a car crash. Sharon's son was 5. He never lived to see his teens. At 11, he accidentally killed himself with one of his father's guns. Sharon will speak of these tragedies in private, says Lili, "but does not like to make it public."
Lili and Sharon married a few years after her sister's death and have two sons. One is a paratrooper in the Israeli army. The youngest came to the trial for several days but returned home -- at 18, like all Israelis, he was off to serve his mandatory three years in the army. "I thought," says Lili, with a sigh, "when they were babies that when they grew up we would have peace."
How to seek that elusive peace is a question of ferocious discord in Israel, and no one person inflames the debate more violently than Ariel Sharon; in fact, no one in Israeli history has so polarized the masses.
Remembered, even by his critics, as a fearless and genuine war hero, Sharon is said to be the model for Leon Uris' Ari Ben-Canaan in "Exodus." Yet, great numbers of Israelis regard the invasion of Lebanon -- they call it "Sharon's War" -- a disaster of military excess. He is despised by many intellectuals, the European-born Israelis, opposition party members and media who see him as an uncontrollable man who would lead his country on a ruinous course of military aggression. Gen. Mordechai (Mota) Gur of the Labor Party has denounced Sharon as "unbalanced, adventurous, dangerous, undisciplined and too independent." He can be charismatic -- and contentious -- a steamroller who goes beyond even the brawling dissension that characterizes Israeli politics. Once, during a Cabinet meeting, Sharon threatened then-deputy prime minister Yigael Yadin, "I'll strip you naked across the table."
But the war -- and Sharon's hard-line settlement policy to retain the West Bank and Gaza -- are also hailed as necessary hammer blows by other Israelis, especially young Sephardic Jews, whose families fled Arab countries. An increasingly larger part of the population, they crown him by his nickname "Arik -- King of Israel". The Trial
Sharon never seems merely to enter a room. He strides through crowds in a rolling side-to-side gait, surrounded by bodyguards, aides and Lili. At the trial she sits to his right in the front row, sometimes absent-mindedly patting his back, touching the gold comb at the back of her dark hair, smoothing her leather skirt. Her husband has two characteristic positions as his eyes stare down witnesses; his arms are either folded across an expansive stomach that strains the seams of his suit jacket or he jots down notes of contention for his lawyer in a tiny notebook.
Sharon couches his mission in lofty terms: he is fighting for the truth, for himself and for Israel. Meanwhile, in Israel, his critics charge that he is here only for personal and political advantage. A longtime foe, Haim Bar-Lev, minister of police, has said caustically, "Sharon has claimed that the state of Israel is on trial -- but he did not bother to ask the country."
In his hotel suite, Sharon emotionally strikes out. "There is a minute when you have to halt and turn back and fight because as they are coming now with those lies about Kibyia, in 10 or 20 or 30 years from now they will come and they will write other lies and it will be a footnote, 'as quoted in Time magazine . . .' " Sharon sighs in disgust. "It is a very hard thing. You are fighting an empire."
Foley Square in Lower Manhattan is 6,000 miles and light years removed from a world of tribal revenge and "war lords" as Time's Israeli correspondent and the magazine's chief witness, David Halevy, has characterized the Gemayels, the Lebanese ruling family. The high-ceilinged courtroom is forbidding black marble and dark wood paneling. As they squint and listen intently to the strange names and heavy accents of Halevy and Sharon, it is doubtful that the nine-member jury, mostly female, has personal reference points for the unfolding tales of massacres and warfare. One juror did have her own memories, however, and excused herself after being emotionally stirred by Halevy's statement that "something is rotten in the state of Israel." A native of Nicaragua, she felt she could no longer be unbiased; "the same thing happened in my country when the Sandinistas came and they changed everything."
Halevy seems to relish a swashbuckling image as he tells of filing stories and then dashing off to fight and get wounded in the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Slim, curly-haired and in his mid-forties, Halevy looks the part of the foreign correspondent, as if he should be pinching a Gauloise cigarette between his fingers as he strolls during breaks in the halls. As he and Sharon pass, they make a point of looking away from one another.
For weeks, the massacre itself has been offstage, treated antiseptically. But Time, when it presents its case, is expected to remind jurors of those worldwide front-page accounts of a grisly blood bath -- bodies of babies in diapers, corpses stacked below bullet-pocked walls, bodies of old men and women draped in alleys and streets, the post-massacre observers who counted up to 100 bodies before becoming ill.
But so far there have been hours of haggling testimony over the nuances of a paragraph in a Time article published in February 1983. Indeed, this unprecedented trial between two giants -- a military and political leader of a foreign country and Time Inc. -- has been called the Battle Over a Paragraph.
The paragraph in question alleges that Sharon had discussed the need for revenge with the family of Phalangist leader Bashir Gemayel the day after the president-elect was assassinated -- and that the discussion was mentioned in a secret appendix to the commission's report. Sharon's chief lawyer, 75-year-old Milton S. Gould, contends that the sentence amounts to an accusation that Sharon was responsible for "mass murder." (Time argues that the paragraph shows no such thing.) To win the case, Sharon must prove not only that the statements were false but that they also defamed him, and that the magazine published them with "serious doubts as to the truth of the statements." The Israeli government's refusal to allow Time to have representatives examine the secret documents has thwarted their case, Time lawyers contend.
Sharon scored major blows when presiding Judge Abraham D. Sofaer elicited lame answers from Halevy and Time editors regarding Halevy's sources and information and the editing. But it remains to be seen what weight the jury will give this; Gould, one of Manhattan's most prominent lawyers, often seems to put off the jury with querulous questioning. And late last week there was a new wrinkle: Time Inc. lawyers announced that the magazine would print a retraction if the secret documents did not substantiate the paragraph. Whether this was some legal ploy (it is thought unlikely that the Israeli government will let them see the documents), an indication of a willingness to settle, or something else, is a matter of speculation. Time lawyers refused to say why they were doing this at this stage.
One of Time Inc.'s major contentions is that it could not damage Sharon's reputation because it has long been one of a "bloodthirsty, insubordinate militarist." Anti-Sharon articles are often displayed on a large courtroom screen, such as stories showing an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 Israelis clogging the streets of Tel Aviv after the massacre, demanding Sharon's resignation in unprecedented furor. There are descriptions of signs reading "Sharon is minister of death," "Sharon murderer," "Stop the monster." Time Inc.'s chief lawyer, Thomas D. Barr, hammered away: "Didn't that affect your reputation adversely? Didn't that hurt your reputation?" After repeated prodding, Sharon finally shouted, "My answer will be, 'I don't know . . .!' " Friends
Many who see Sharon as a hero crowd the courtroom. Men in yarmulkes come up to him to shake his hand. Some are from Israel. "That commission report was unnecessary," says one emphatically. They feel Israel and Sharon have been castigated for a massacre carried out by one group of Lebanese against another. One night, Sharon and his entourage swept late into a New York hotel ballroom for a testimonial dinner sponsored by the Lawyers Division of State of Israel Bonds. The honored guest was Sharon's lawyer, Gould.
A speaker stopped in mid-sentence and Sharon beamed as the roomful of lawyers gave him a standing ovation. Arnold Foster, a partner of Gould's, introduced Sharon as his nation's "most outstanding military leader." His voice rising, Foster said, "He has a reputation, I must admit. He has the reputation of denying the enemy the luxury of killing even a single Jew, Christian, Moslem or any other innocent in his part of the world." Sounding a hard-line battle cry, Foster said, "He rejects the notion that he must be considerate to those of Israel's enemies who would destroy it. I am proud to call him my friend!" From the Past
Sharon has known war all his life, but he says it was "only circumstances that brought me to the military. I could have been an agronomist like my father or scientist or medical doctor." Gould says Sharon is "literally fanatical" in his devotion to Israel. Speaking of the siege mentality of a tiny nation surrounded by enemies, Gould likens Israel to "what Voltaire said of Prussia -- it is not a state with an army but an army with a state."
Sharon was there long before it was a state. The son of Russian e'migre's, he was born in Palestine in 1928 and knew the poverty of pioneer life. His mother left medical school in Russia, yet, in Israel, "I never remember my mother having shoes," says Sharon. Those settlers were a "generation of giants," he goes on, adding toughly, "and we also are strong." He says his boyhood dreams were of "independence."
The classic Sharon filibuster that leaves lawyers and judges admonishing him just to answer the question is no different in private. Like a tank, he rolls over attempts to interrupt as he launches into a fiercely possessive account of Israeli history. "There has been nonstop Jewish existence there. For thousands of years! Only the Jews have the rights over Israel. Others have the right to live there but the owners of the country are the Jewish people. We never felt for one minute, not even for one minute we were not living in our country!" As a child he learned to use guns to fight off crop-stealing Arabs and as a teen-ager joined the Haganah, the pre-statehood underground army. At 20, he was badly wounded in the 1948 War of Independence.
Sharon testifies about knowing the "horrors" of war, but he says this matter-of-factly. What he feels about the killing he experienced and witnessed is hidden. "Army generals, they are, how you say, 'suspected' to like war. That is a major mistake. Take myself. I participated in so many. All those fears and pain. Seeing friends killed. Seeing enemy soldiers killed." How about women and children? He waves his hand to interupt. "That is above and beyond. The last that we could be suspected to like are wars."
The battles, however, are vividly recalled. Sharon's victories and exploits are legendary in Israel and, unlike family or emotions or personal dreams of glory, he speaks of them with relish. He speaks of 1948: "I was wounded badly in the left leg and belly, machine gun, and my right hand was plastered," he says, holding it up as if in a cast, "from a road accident a few days before." Most were killed but a few managed to withdraw from the battlefield with the help of a 17-year-old soldier who also dragged Sharon up steep terraced land. "I was very slim then," says Sharon, patting his profound belly and laughing. "I don't think he could have done it today."
One battle -- Mitla Pass in the 1956 Sinai Campaign -- has haunted him throughout his career and now in this trial. Articles are introduced, such as a critical one in Present Tense, an American Jewish liberal magazine, that describe an overzealous commander leading paratroopers into a battle that assured a vital victory but cost many Israeli lives. "Four of Sharon's battalion commanders charged Sharon with perhaps the most serious accusations that can be leveled against a commander; exceeding his orders and fighting an 'unnecessary battle.' " Sharon was subsequently "put in charge of training programs and given study leave."
Sharon's eyes widen and he protests "NO! NO!" when asked, as it has been often reported, that he exceeded his orders of command at Mitla Pass. "Ben-Gurion promoted me." Into the Future
As Sharon battles in Manhattan, opposition leaders and newspapers in Israel continue to rail that this is but more self-promotion in the undaunted Sharon's political comeback. He is attacked as being derelict in his duty as minister of trade and industry at a time of extreme economic distress, and for the amount of money the government is spending (estimates range up to $200,000) on Sharon's Manhattan expenses.
For his part, Sharon is using the American press, saying that should he win his "blood libel" suit he will establish a fund to wage a propaganda campaign against Arab terrorism and to pay legal expenses for Israelis and other Jews who want to wage similar legal battles against the press with whom he has fought so often. Sharon also says he cannot wait to return to his 1,000-acre farm with its roses and sheep and melons. He gets daily reports on the sheep and their offspring during this lambing season.
But Sharon is no avuncular farmer -- and no mere outraged plaintiff either. From the vague limbo of minister-without-portfolio, to which he was exiled after the Kahan Commission report, Sharon is now prominent in the so-called unity government. If the Labor-Likud coalition lasts that long, in 22 months, the next prime minister will come from Sharon's Likud Bloc. Sharon will fight to the end to lead his country and become a major power in the troubled Middle East.
His campaign to rule Israel continues halfway around the world, in Manhattan's Foley Square.