Former Israeli defense minister Ariel Sharon took the stand today in his $50 million libel suit against Time magazine, declaring that he had come to defend the "truth."
"My parents were Hebrew," he told a federal jury. "They fought for the truth . . . . We were brought up that way, defending the truth -- your truth, the peoples' truth -- that was also what brought me here 6,000 miles away from home to this American courtroom."
Sharon has charged Time magazine with committing "a blood libel against the Jewish people" in a February 1983 article about his alleged role in the 1982 massacre of more than 700 civilians in two of Lebanon's Palestinian refugee camps. The murders were committed by Christian Phalangist troops who were funded, trained and ordered into the camps by the Israeli military to mop up terrorists. Israel had occupied Lebanon earlier.
Time reported that the day before the Sept. 16-18 massacres began at the Sabra and Shatila camps south of Beirut, Sharon had "discussed" with the Gemayel family -- leaders of the right-wing Phalangist forces -- "the need for the Phalangists to take revenge for the assassination of Bashir Gemayel ," the president-elect of Lebanon who died in a terrorist bombing on Sept. 14.
Time reported that the information was contained in a secret appendix to the February 1983 public report of the Kahan Commission, an Israeli tribunal that found Sharon bore "indirect responsibility" for the massacre.
"The minister of defense made a grave mistake when he ignored the danger of acts of revenge and bloodshed by the Phalangists . . . ," the commission concluded in the report, a finding that precipitated Sharon's resignation as minister of defense.
In a deposition last Friday, Sharon denied Time's report, declaring that in his meetings with the Phalangists "never did the question, issue or subject of revenge or any other term in English that can be similar, that has the same meaning, get raised."
The trial, pitting a high-level cabinet official of a major U.S. ally against one of the nation's most influential news organizations, is at one level a battle over history.
"You can't let it go down in history that an Israeli general committed mass murder," Milton S. Gould, Sharon's chief attorney, said in an interview.
However, Thomas D. Barr, Time's principal counsel, said in an interview that Sharon's lawsuit is "an effort on his part to intimidate the press. He wants the press to shut up. In his own mind, he is at war with the press."
Barr -- whose firm, Cravath Swaine & Moore -- is defending CBS Inc. against a libel suit by retired U.S. general William C. Westmoreland in the same federal courthouse, drew a parallel with the Westmoreland case. "Westmoreland said he wants to destroy CBS," Barr said. "It's becoming a popular thing for ex-generals to do."
In the first of what is expected to be at least three days on the witness stand, Sharon, now minister of industry and commerce, described his childhood on a farm in central Israel. His parents emigrated from the Soviet Union in the 1920s.
In fluent and heavily accented English, the former general, a huge, silver-haired man, told the jury that his mother did not wear shoes and that his family lived in "terrible poverty" in "a hut" where "people lived in one room and the cows in the other.
"But the spiritual side of life was very rich," he said. "We were people with vision, dreams, intellectual people. My father used to paint, play the violin."
Sharon traced his military career, which lasted from 1947 until he went into politics in 1973, and described how he fought and was wounded by "Arab terrorists."
During his hour-long testimony, he frequently digressed into discussions of Arab terrorism and was interrupted five times by Gould in an effort to focus his replies on the questions.
By contrast, the Sharon that Barr sought to depict in his opening statement earlier in the day was far from a sympathetic figure. Barr placed on a screen before the jury articles to back up the contention in Time's legal briefs that "Sharon's reputation has long been that of a bloodthirsty, insubordinate militarist."
While Gould repeatedly objected to the display of stories from the U.S., British and Israeli press, U.S. District Judge Abraham Sofaer ruled that the articles could be discussed. Barr argued that the stories which attributed incidents of brutality and deception to Sharon put Time's articles into context.
One story in an Israeli paper, detailing the outcry against Sharon after the Kahan Commission report, quoted an Israeli politician calling Sharon "a war criminal . . . . A man who puts a snake into a child's bed and says, 'I'm sorry, I told the snake not to bite.'"
Barr said the Israelis knew very well that "the Phalangists were a gang of murderers and rapists who destroyed as a way of life and massacred civilian populations routinely." Yet, quoting at length from the Kahan Commission report, Barr detailed the meetings between Sharon and the Phalangists over the Israeli decision to allow the Phalangists to "mop up" alleged terrorists in the Palestinian camps while Israeli troops occupied West Beirut.
In an effort to show that the Israelis knew the Phalangists were intent on revenge, Barr quoted from the Kahan Commission report on a conversation between the Israeli chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Rafael Eitan, and the Israeli cabinet on the night the massacre began. The Phalangists were "sharpening their knives" in the wake of Gemayal's assassination, Eitan told the cabinet. They "have just one thing left to do, and that is revenge, and it will be terrible."
Time's lawyers contend that Sharon first told the Phalangists to prepare to enter the camps at a meeting on Sept. 12, a meeting that Gould, in his opening statement, confirmed as having taken place.
Barr said that Time was still hoping to read to the jury the deposition of U.S. Ambassador Morris Draper who was in close contact with all sides at the time.