JERUSALEM (Jul. 22)
Ariel Sharon is still slugging it out with the media over his role in the Lebanon war.
In 1986, after a lengthy and highly public fight, Sharon and Time magazine settled out of court following a libel suit he had brought against the American magazine for an article it ran on his alleged involvement in the 1982 massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut.
Now, Sharon has filed a libel suit against Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz and one of its columnists, Uzi Benziman. This, too, revolves around Sharon’s alleged connections to the killings, which were perpetrated by Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia.
This latest suit could become “the political trial of the decade,” commentators here say.
The outspoken Likud minister, one of Israel’s most controversial politician, claims he was maligned by Benziman in a column published in May.
It alleged that Prime Minister Menachem Begin was duped by Sharon into the Lebanon war in 1982, when Sharon was defense minister.
Sharon, week, is asking half a million shekels in damages, the equivalent of about $210,000.
A decision in favor of Sharon would significantly boost his chances to succeed Yitzhak Shamir as leader of the Likud, when the 75-year-old prime minister decides to step down, and could place Sharon in the offing as Israel’s next prime minister.
Observers point out that Sharon has had good luck in the courts, citing the outcome of his libel suits against Time magazine both in the United States and Israel.
The Tel Aviv District Court in September 1985 awarded Sharon $2,000 for trial costs in his Israeli suit against Time and ruled the magazine had defamed him.
In the American courtroom, Time, in exchange for Sharon’s dropping his libel action, was ordered to agree that its cover story of Feb. 21, 1983 had been “erroneous” and to pay part of Sharon’s legal fees.
Under Israeli law, it is not necessary to prove malice in a libel suit. One must only prove a story was false and defamatory.
Benziman’s comments appeared, ironically, in the context of an article praising Sharon’s accomplishments as Israel’s housing czar.
“Menachem Begin knows full well that Sharon duped him,” Benziman wrote, “but he does not want to hide behind the ample back of his defense minister his own responsibility, as prime minister, for the war, its ups and downs, its final outcome and, above all, its cost.”
Sharon is said to plan to call Begin to the witness stand or, failing that, obtain a sworn deposition from the former prime minister, who has been a semi-recluse since his surprise resignation in 1983.