General Sharon’s War Against Time Magazine by Dov Aharoni (Steimatzky, Shapolsky: $4.95; 336 pp.)
On Feb. 21, 1983, Time magazine suggested that Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon had encouraged Lebanese Christian forces to take “revenge” the previous September against Palestinian refugee camps for the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, Lebanon’s newly elected president. Sharon sued Time for libel. The jury in that notable case found that Time had not acted out of “actual malice,” a necessary intention under the law to prove libel. But in a non-binding further finding, jurors held that Time had acted “negligently and carelessly” in its reporting about Sharon’s role in the Sabra and Chatilla killings. Few who followed the trial would fault that conclusion. A lot of fault, however, can be found with what Dov Aharoni has chosen to make of it.
In this overheated and even lurid account of the trial and the events leading to it, Aharoni celebrates those few words from the jury as a “vindication” of Sharon. The exoneration that he infers is not simply in regard to the Sabra and Chatilla massacres. By extension, it becomes a justification for the Lebanon war, for Sharon’s role in that war and indeed of his entire military and political career. As Aharoni sees it, Sharon has long been a victim of small-minded and weak-kneed enemies at home and vicious press critics abroad. Thus, he fully accepts Sharon’s self-serving contention, found repellent by so many others in Israel and elsewhere, that with its accusation Time had committed a “blood libel” against Sharon personally and the Jewish people in general. Sharon made a tragic botch of things in Lebanon--though Aharoni refuses to accept that--but at least he won his “war” against Time.
Aharoni is astonishingly selective in the evidence he cites to support these several claims. His brief recapitulation of Sharon’s military career is of no value at all in providing insights into the quite serious and well-founded doubts that have always surrounded the swashbuckling general. Sharon’s efforts to deceive his own government and the Israeli people about what he really intended to do in Lebanon are ignored. The most telling distortion of all, because it goes to the heart of Aharoni’s argument, comes in his use of the historical record. In an appendix, Aharoni reprints the final report of the Kahan Commission, whose thorough investigation and candid findings about what happened at Sabra and Chatilla did honor to Israel. But one must look closely to see that what Aharoni offers are in fact only “excerpts” from the report. Wholly omitted are the findings by the commission that forced Sharon to resign his defense minister’s job.
What the commission concluded is that “responsibility is to be imputed to (Sharon) for having disregarded the danger of acts of vengeance and bloodshed by the Phalangists against the population of the refugee camps. . . . Responsibility is to be imputed . . . for not ordering appropriate measures for preventing or reducing the danger of massacre. . . . These blunders constitute the non-fulfillment of a duty with which the defense minister was charged.” Those definitive and damning words are not to be found in the Aharoni book.
Sharon is plainly not without his admirers and even adulators, at home and--as Aharoni demonstrates--in the United States as well. For these persons, Sharon is the uncrowned king of Israel. Critics are of a far different mind, seeing in Sharon a deceitful conniver whose questionable respect for democratic institutions and enormous appetite for power make him something of a national menace. Nowhere are those critics more numerous than within the Israeli military. Chaim Herzog, a former chief of military intelligence and now Israel’s president, has written of nearly 30 years of complaints about Sharon’s “dictatorial tendencies,” his “insubordination” and “dishonesty.” These are not the opinions of one man but the considered judgments of a long line of senior commanders in the Israeli military. Sharon’s suit against Time did indeed expose a flagrant example of journalistic irresponsibility. It did not, Aharoni to the contrary, do anything to amend or clean up the Sharon record.