JERUSALEM (Jan. 20)
Former Defense Minister Ariel Sharon’s victory in the first two rounds of his $50 million libel suit against Time magazine is seen by many Israelis as a major step toward the political rehabilitation of the man the Kahan Commission found “indirectly responsible” for the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps massacre of September, 1982.
A Manhattan Federal Court jury ruled Wednesday that Time had indeed defamed Sharon when it alleged, in a February 21, 1983 story, that the Israeli defense chief personally encouraged the Christian Phalangists, then Israel’s ally in Lebanon, to take revenge on the Palestinians for the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, the Phalangist leader and President-elect of Lebanon.
Last Friday, the jury decided that Time magazine knowingly published false information. It is in session today to determine whether the magazine did so with malicious intent. If the decision is affirmative, the three requirements for proof of libel will have been met. A later hearing by a different jury, will decide what sum Time must pay the plaintiff. The magazine can appeal the verdict.
MOVING A STEP CLOSER TO HIS GOAL
Whatever the final outcome, the consensus here is that Sharon has been further distanced from the scathing indictment of the Kahan Commission and has moved a step closer to his frankly stated goal of becoming Israel’s next Prime Minister.
Deputy Premier and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, the leader of Likud, one of Sharon’s most serious rivals for the Premiership, was the first to congratulate him Wednesday on the New York jury’s verdict on the first count of libel. Haim Kaufman, chairman of the Likud Executive, also sent a cable of congratulations.
Sharon himself made the most of his preliminary victory. In an interview from New York with Voice of Israel Radio last Thursday, he repeated his contention that the jury’s finding was not simply a personal vindication but a matter of vital importance to the interests of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.
Had other Israeli leaders taken the same steps “10,20 and 30 years ago, the world press would not have treated us the way it does,” Sharon said. His point was that his suit against Time was not a personal mission but rather a mission of national and historic importance for Israel and all Jews.
Sharon told the Voice of Israel Radio last week that he would return to Israel to immerse himself in the many tasks awaiting him as Minister of Commerce and Industry, a senior Cabinet post. The immediate task is the negotiations over a new economic package deal to replace the current wage-price freeze which expires at the end of this month. Sharon’s ministry is a key component of a new economic program.
But Sharon is expected to lose no time paving the way to his ultimate goal, the office of Prime Minister. He faces formidable obstacles. Under the unity coalition agreement, Shamir, and only Shamir, is to succeed Labor Party leader Shimon Peres as Premier for the second half of the government’s statutory 25-month term of office.
But even if no such restriction existed, neither Likud nor its Herut faction are exclusively Sharon’s territory. In addition to overcoming Shamir, which may not be an easy task, Sharon must fend off the challenges of two other powerful Likud-Herut politicians — Deputy Premier David Levy and former Defense Minister and now Minister-Without-Portfolio Moshe Arens — both of whom aspire to the same goal as Sharon.