A Time magazine lawyer today accused former Israeli defense minister Ariel Sharon of suing the magazine for libel to shed the taint from an Israeli commission's finding that he bore "indirect responsibility" for the 1982 massacre at two refugee camps in Beirut.
"He's a fighting man, and he had to fight someone," attorney Thomas Barr said of Sharon. "He couldn't fight a commission. He couldn't sue the commission. It had already gone out of business."
In suing Time, Barr said, Sharon figured, "That's the way I'm going to wash my hands clean of this terrible, terrible mess."
Barr suggested that Sharon and his lawyers were so desperate to find grounds for a suit that they singled out a comparatively minor paragraph in a 10-page cover story on the commission's findings and attempted to exaggerate its meaning.
Sharon sat stiffly in a front-row seat next to his wife, Lilly, as Barr made Time's closing arguments in the trial that began Nov. 13. Barr sharply questioned Sharon's contention, as had the Israeli commission, that he was unaware that the massacre of Palestinian refugees would occur.
"I say to you, who is he kidding?" Barr asked the nine jurors and alternates.
Much of Barr's four-hour summation was dry and tedious as he sought to challenge Sharon's testimony here by reading from more than one dozen sections of the commission report.
Barr had missed much of the trial, citing problems with medication for hypertension. At one point today, he asked to complete closing arguments Friday morning, but Judge Abraham D. Sofaer insisted that he finish this evening.
Barr clearly wanted to make sure that the massacre commission findings are uppermost in jurors' minds when they begin deliberations. He painstakingly attempted to sort out complex events surrounding Sharon's decision to allow Lebanese Christian militiamen to enter the camps where they killed hundreds of men, women and children in a 36-hour slaughter.
Barr conceded that Time erred in reporting that details of a conversation between Sharon and Phalangist leaders the day before the massacre were in a secret appendix to the commission report. He did not strongly defend Time's published assertion that Sharon discussed with the Phalangists the need to avenge the assassination of their leader, Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayel.
"They might not have talked, if silence itself is consent . . . ," Barr said, "or maybe not very many words were necessary."
Just what had been discussed, he said, is not publicly known because the Israeli government has refused to allow Time to examine all of the information collected by the commission.
Citing public portions of the commission report, Barr said there is ample evidence that Sharon had often been warned by his army chief of staff and others about what could be expected. Then defense minister, Sharon is now minister of industry and trade.
"If you had decided to send these bloodthirsty cutthroats into the camps, and the chief of staff told you three times in a day, 'Revenge, revenge, revenge,' alarm bells would be going off," Barr said.
The major point, however, that Barr argued in defending against the $50 million libel claim was that Israeli citizen David Halevy, the correspondent responsible for the contested paragraph, and editors and researchers in New York believed at the time that the published report was true.
Citing federal court rulings on libel as it applies to public figures, Barr said Sharon must prove "not that we were objectively wrong, not that we were careless" but that Time writers and reporters had a "high degree of awareness" that it might not be true when they published the information.
Barr was clearly counting on the fact that Halevy seemed to impress the jury favorably when he testified.
Halevy's Time career has been marked by major stories, including two that Time later conceded were unsupportable. He openly rejected the idea in testimony that reporters ought to be objective and politically neutral.
A lieutenant colonel in the Israeli army reserve, Halevy has been deeply involved in Israeli Labor Party politics in opposition to Sharon.
Jurors seemed enthralled by his vivid and dramatic descriptions of a foreign correspondent's life. One said she was so moved by his testimony that she asked for, and received, permission to be excused from duty.
"Isn't he what you hope reporters will be?" Barr asked the jury today. "Isn't he the kind of enterprising, straightforward man you want out there digging?
"God help us if we develop a bunch of reporters who flinch from what they see or hear because of a lawsuit," he said.
Sharon's lawyers are scheduled to present their summation Friday and, after a weekend recess, Sofaer is expected to give jurors their instructions Monday.