It's every journalist's dream: to cultivate a high-ranking source who has access to classified material so that the source will be at his disposal to clarify secret details. A source like that is a rare treasure, and overseas he becomes the mysterious mini-hero of derring-do exploits of the "Deep Throat" type in Watergate.
In Israel everything is blander, and if such sources exist their identity is meant to be a closely guarded secret by the journalist. On one occasion a source like this cropped up, a friend of the press, whose generosity competed with his expertise. When the first report was not believed, he went back to the secret material in order to go over it again and then get back to the journalist with an authoritative answer.
That was in February 1983, and the man with the secrets was Ehud Olmert. In December 1984 MK Olmert testified in the libel suit filed by Ariel Sharon against Time Magazine, in Manhattan. Under United States law, Sharon had to overcome three hurdles: to prove to the jury that the magazine had published lies about him, that his reputation had been sullied, and that the underlying reason for the publication of the material was malicious. Negligence would also be taken into consideration in the malice test, and to get over this obstacle, Sharon invited asked Olmert to testify. This was also the hurdle that ultimately tripped Sharon up, to the chagrin of the friendly judge, Abraham Sofaer.
Time wrote that the Sabra-Chatila massacre in September 1982 was preceded by a condolence visit paid by the defense minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, to the mourning relatives of the assassinated Lebanese president, Bashir Gemayel, in Bikfaya, Lebanon. During that visit, revenge was allegedly discussed. The inference was that Sharon was responsible for the massacre directly and not only indirectly, as found by the judicial commission of inquiry of then justices Yitzhak Kahan and Aharon Barak, and Major General (res.) Yona Efrat. According to Time, the conversation about taking revenge at Bikfaya was included in the secret appendix to the Kahan Commission report.
Sharon's lawyers invited Olmert to testify in order to prove that Time was negligent in checking the Bikfaya story. The verbatim transcript of Olmert's testimony follows, with some omissions.
A prestigious committee
The Court [Judge Sofaer]: "Next witness."
[A lawyer for Sharon, Richard] Goldstein: What is your age, Mr. Olmert?
What is your occupation?
"By profession I am an attorney. I practice law and I am also a member of the Israeli Knesset."
Is there a committee in the Knesset known as the Committee for Defense and Foreign Relations?
"Yes. It's a select committee of the Knesset that deals with foreign affairs and defense, security in the State of Israel."
Are you a member of this committee?
"I am a member of that committee."
How long have you been a member of that committee?
"Over three years by now."
Approximately how many members of the Knesset serve on this committee?
"Well, it changes in different times. Presently there are 23 members. I could say safely it's quite a prestigious committee and lots of members are trying to squeeze in to be members and so the numbers sometimes changes, but presently there are 23 members."
And you said there were over 100 members in the Knesset generally?
"Precisely 120 members."
Could you describe just generally the functions of the Defense and Foreign Relations Committee?
"Well, the function of the committee is to overview and control everything relating to the defense of the State of Israel in every area of defense, military, military operations, military budget, the structure of the army, the operation of the different services of the State of Israel which relates to defense, and also the foreign relations."
Mr. Olmert, are you familiar with the report of the commission of inquiry into the events at the refugee camps in Beirut?
That is what is commonly called the Kahan Commission report?
Did you read the final report of the Kahan Commission?
"Yes, I did."
Was a portion of that report not made public?
What portion was withheld from the public?
"Well, this portion is known now as Appendix B."
Have you ever read Appendix B?
"Yes, I did."
When did you read it for the first time?
"Well, as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee I had access to the secret material including Appendix B and immediately following the publication of the Kahan Commission report, I asked, through the committee, to look at the Appendix B and at that time I read it. It was maybe two, three days after the Kahan Commission report was issued the first time."
That would have been ...
"Approximately, I would say, around February 10, 1983."
Can you tell us how many pages Appendix B consists of?
"It consists of 12 pages."
Mr. Olmert, are you familiar with an article which appeared in Time Magazine's February 21, 1983 edition entitled "The Verdict is Guilty"?
Did you read that article?
"Yes, I did."
When did you read it for the first time?
"Well, I read it just after it was circulated in Israel. I guess it was a week after the Kahan Commission report was issued. It always comes with a delay of a couple of days and when it was on the stands in Israel, I bought a paper and read it. I heard about it, I guess, a couple of days before when the first press release about the content of the article appeared in the Israeli media."
What is it you read or heard on the papers about the articles [sic]?
Mr. Saunders, attorney for Time: "Your Honor, I object to that."
The Court: "Overruled."
Olmert: "What I heard was that the Time Magazine accuses Sharon of instigating the murder that took place in Sabra and Chatila, that he was involved in encouraging the Christian Phalangists to take reprisals or retaliation, I don't really remember, revenge, I don't remember which one of the specific terms was used, but that he was the inspiration, the instigator that was involved in bringing about this massacre."
Mr. Olmert, I would like to direct your attention over to that blowup on the easel.
"I would appreciate if you can give me a copy."
For the record ...
"For short-sighted people."
That is an enlargement of the paragraph that appears at the bottom of page 29 of the Time article. I would simply like to ask you if you recall having read that paragraph.
"Yes, I did."
Mr. Olmert, do you know a man named Harry Kelly?
"Yes, I do."
Can you identify him for us?
"I saw him before in the crowd here. I think he is in here."
You needn't point him out.
"Yes, I know him. I met him when he was bureau chief of Time Magazine in Jerusalem."
Mr. Goldstein: "With your Honor's permission, perhaps I can let Mr. Olmert ..."
Mr. Barr [a Time attorney]: "This is Mr. Kelly down at the end of the table."
Olmert: "I recognize him."
Now, Mr. Olmert, did you ever discuss that paragraph, which is at the bottom of page 29, with Mr. Kelly?
"Yes, I did."
When did you have discussion with him?
"Well, I was invited shortly after the article appeared and the first lawsuit was filed by Minister Sharon, I think in the Israeli court against Time Magazine. I was invited by the Foreign Ministry to attend a dinner party in honor of Mayor Ed Koch in New York, who was visiting Israel. Mr. Kelly was sitting next to me. So in that dinner at that time, of course, the Kahan Commission report and the Time Magazine article and the fact that Mr. Sharon filed a libel suit against Time Magazine was the talk of the town and in the process of that dinner we discussed it."
Would you tell us, as best you can recall, what you said to Mr. Kelly and what, if anything, he said to you concerning that paragraph?
"Well, to the best of my recollection, Mr. Kelly asked me whether I had a chance to look at and read Appendix B, the second appendix of the Kahan Commission report, and I said 'yes, indeed,' and I told him that I read it and that there is nothing, just nothing in the Appendix B which even resembles the story of Time Magazine. There was no mention whatsoever or any meeting at Bikfaya and no talk about revenge that supposedly took place in that meeting, and I expressed - I told him this information, and I said, 'I think you failed, and the story is entirely baseless.'"
Did Mr. Kelly react in any way to what you said?
"Yes, I felt that he was quite concerned when he first heard it from me and while we were talking, he asked whether I would be kind enough to look again at the appendix and find out for sure. I felt, and I told him, I don't think there is any need, it's definitely not there. But I guess - I think he said that maybe when I first read it, I wasn't aware of the fact that the Time Magazine had the story and now maybe I will look again and make sure. And I said, 'Sure enough, I will do it for you.'"
Let's just go back for a second. I would like you to try to pinpoint in time ...
The Court: "Ladies and gentlemen, this testimony is being admitted not for proof of the contents of the appendix, but for the testimony relating to the conversation with Mr. Kelly, what he said, what the witness said to Mr. Kelly and what Mr. Kelly said back. That conversation may be pertinent on other issues in the case than the issue of truth. It's pertinent to the issue of actual malice and other possible issues. Go ahead."
Did you, in fact, go back to look again at Appendix B, as Mr. Kelly had requested?
Olmert: "Yes. I promised Mr. Kelly that I would look at it although I had no doubt that it's not there. And the next day or two days later, we had a meeting of the session of the Foreign Relations Committee and I asked to see the secret appendix and I read it from the beginning to end ..."
The Court: "That is fine. Next question."
Did you thereafter telephone or contact Mr. Kelly?
"I myself, yes, through my secretary I called him. And I told him, 'Well, Mr. Kelly, that is what I told you. It's not there. It's just not there. There is nothing about Bikfaya. There is nothing about revenge, reprisals, retaliation, anything of this nature. It's not there.'"
Did Mr. Kelly say anything to you in that conversation?
"I think he - first of all, I felt he was very disturbed by the information, but he just said, 'You know, I appreciate very much that you took the pain of looking and checking it for me and thank you very much.'"
Did you tell Mr. Kelly or make it clear to him whether or not you had read all of the appendix, Appendix B?
"Of course, it was clear that I said to him that I read the appendix and indeed I read all the appendix."
Mr. Olmert, I am not sure if I asked you this before. Can you explain how it is that you had access to Appendix B?
"A very official way."
The Court: "He did explain that. As a member of the committee he could ask to see it. He said that."
Within a certain context
Mr. Olmert, I want to ask you a few questions about your understanding of General Sharon's reputation, and I would like to break it down to three periods: his reputation up to the release of the Kahan report; the impact, if any, of the Kahan report on his reputation; and then, lastly, the impact, if any, of the Time article on his reputation.
"[Before the events dealt with by the report] Sharon was a controversial political and public figure. There were many political rivals who criticized his positions, and on the other side, there were many people who supported him. I think no one could deny the fact that the Kahan Commission report, when it was published and issued, damaged Mr. Sharon's reputation. Mr. Sharon had to resign from his position as a defense minister, which is enormously important in Israeli life, and it was obvious that his reputation suffered. [But] the feeling of many was that this is not the end of his political career. The overall impression was that his reputation suffered, but it was within a certain context, since he remained a cabinet minister. Many people just say that if this is true, what is written in Time Magazine, such an important publication, it must be true, then Sharon is a murderer."
The Court: "Mr. Saunders, cross-examination."
Mr. Olmert, did you ever see placards or signs stating in words or substance that Sharon was a murderer prior to the publication of the Time article?
"No. I heard that there were, but I personally didn't see it. I particularly remember one demonstration [on] the day after the first news broke out about the massacre. In that particular demonstration there were signs and slogans that read 'Begin and Sharon are murderers.'"
And the demonstration that you have just described took place approximately five months before the publication of the Time article, is that correct?
Are you a member of the Likud bloc in the Knesset?
And is General Sharon one of the leaders of that bloc?
"I just want to explain to you, the bloc is made of three different parties. One is Herut, and Mr. Sharon is a member of that party. One is the Liberal Party, and the third, which is unfortunately the smaller faction, which is my faction, La'am. I am a member of La'am. We are members of the same political bloc, but we don't belong to the same political party. We select [candidates] separately and then we incorporate different candidates into one list, according to a prearranged order."
Did you ever say in words or substance that General Sharon was a senior leader in your party?
"I may have used the term, but that is what I actually meant."
Do you know what position General Sharon holds today in his government?
"He is the minister of trade and industry."
Is that an important position?
"He is more important than a member of Knesset. He is less important than defense minister."
Is that one of the positions you would like to have, Mr. Olmert?
"It is not necessarily one of my areas of expertise in public life, but I think if I had been offered this position, I might have seriously considered it."
The Court: "We will take a break. Have a nice lunch. Remember not to discuss the case."
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