The Supreme Court yesterday rejected Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's appeal of a Tel Aviv District Court verdict that threw out his libel suit against Ha'aretz and its correspondent, Uzi Benziman, for writing in 1991 that former prime minister "Menachem Begin indeed knows very well that Sharon deceived him" in the Lebanon War.
Justices Elihu Mazza, Ya'akov Terkel and Eliezer Rivlin did not delve into the historical truths stated in Benziman's May 17, 1991 article on the Ha'aretz op-ed page, but made do with confirming the district court ruling that Benziman wrote in a bona fide manner. The justices ruled Sharon should pay Ha'aretz and Benziman NIS 15,000 in court costs.
Benziman, who was at the court for yesterday's announcement, said that "the result of the entire affair, which went on for 11 years, is a rejection of Sharon's libel suit. The district court ruled on the basis of factual evidence that we proved Sharon was not truthful toward Menachem Begin. The Supreme Court chose to make do with the defense of bona fide to throw out Sharon's appeal. I am sticking to my view that what I wrote was true, and I will continue to write it."
One of Sharon's lawyers, Dov Weisglass, said after the court decision that "the Supreme Court ruled that since Benziman wrote an article, he is protected by the defense of bona fide. In any case, history will determine whether or not it's true. Sharon is certain that all the stages of the war were with Begin's knowledge and authorization." The prime minister said yesterday that "the late prime minister Menachem Begin knew every detail" of how the war was waged.
Benziman's article was meant to undermine public confidence in Sharon, by examining Sharon's behavior in various circumstances. One of those was the Lebanon War, and as a result of that reference, Sharon pressed his libel suit.
At one point, Sharon dropped the case but renewed it after Benziman said he was sticking to his guns and that he would write the same in the future.
In his lawsuit, Sharon claimed that Benziman's article was "damaging and untruthful" and caused him harm. Ha'aretz and Benziman responded that the article was truthful and that it was of public interest. In any case, argued the defendants, Benziman's bona fide behavior was sufficient defense against libel charges.
Tel Aviv District Court Judge Moshe Talgam ruled against Sharon in the case. He said that Benziman's article was a bona fide expression of his opinion about Sharon's behavior while in an official capacity, and that Benziman took reasonable steps to prove the veracity of his claims. Talgam ruled that was enough to reject Sharon's lawsuit, but he also went further, saying that Benziman was protected by the truth of what he wrote. Talgam ruled that Benziman had proved that Begin and his government did not give Sharon a mandate for an all-out war in Lebanon, but only for a limited operation of up to 40 kilometers from the border, and that Sharon went beyond those limits, deceptively reporting to the government and the prime minister.
Talgam also ruled that Sharon did not behave innocently when he temporarily dropped his lawsuit, preventing any chance of summoning Begin to testify in court. Sharon renewed the lawsuit only after the former prime minister passed away.
In the appeal to the Supreme Court, Sharon's lawyers, Dov Weisglass and Ya'akov Weinroth, argued that Begin had denied in public on a number of occasions the charges that Sharon deceived him.
Sharon's lawyers claimed that they proved that Begin determined the entire course of the war, and that its expansion was not the result of prior planning by Sharon, but rather military requirements resulting from changing circumstances in the field. The lawyers rejected the district court's ruling that Sharon was guilty of deliberately missing an opportunity to have Begin testify in the case. And they claimed that Ha'aretz and Benziman could not claim they acted in a bona fide manner, since the phrase "Menachem Begin indeed knows very well that Sharon deceived him" was not an opinion but a statement of fact, and in any case, Benziman did not state explicitly that it was his personal opinion.
Ha'aretz lawyer Mibi Mozer argued that much evidence was presented proving Sharon deceived Begin and the government. He said that the argument was posited in hundreds of articles that preceded Benziman's piece, and Sharon never sued for libel against those writers. Mozer said that Begin's public denials need not be considered, since he only learned about Sharon's deception five years later, from his son, Benny Begin, after a public lecture in which Sharon confirmed that his goal from the start was to reach Beirut. Mozer also claimed that once the district court ruled on the factual evidence, the Supreme Court need not intervene.
In the verdict rejecting Sharon's appeal, the court was unanimous in its acceptance of Talgam's ruling that Benziman's article was bona fide, but the Supreme Court justices did not deal with Talgam's findings that Benziman's article was truthful. Mazza wrote that "historical truth" is a matter for historians, not courts. He emphasized that by refraining to comment on that issue, the court was neither accepting nor rejecting Benziman's statements. Mazza ruled that Ha'aretz and Benziman proved that the article was an opinion piece, meant to criticize Sharon on matters of public interest and that within the context in which Benziman wrote that "Begin was deceived by Sharon," priority must be given to the principle of freedom of expression.
Justices Terkel and Rivlin did criticize, in passing, Talgam's decision to get involved in determining historical facts without having the proper tools to deal with the issues and after he already had ruled that Benziman acted in a bona fide manner.