Breaking the Silence of Cowards

"Emet Dibarti: Sippur Mishpat Hadiba, Sharon Neged Ha'aretz" ("Nothing But the Truth") by Uzi Benziman, Keter, 299 pages, NIS 79

"To say that Arik Sharon doesn't tell the truth is about as necessary as saying the sun rises every day," said Yechiel Kadishai, prime minister Menachem Begin's right-hand man and confidant, in private conversation - a remark later confirmed by him in court. But Uzi Benziman, a journalist with values who still takes the democratic duty of the media seriously, believes that when the person in question is a prominent public figure, it is important - even imperative - to remind the world, over and over again, that he is not trustworthy.

That is why Benziman wrote the column that led to Sharon's libel suit against Ha'aretz, and that is why he wrote the fascinating book under review, with a title that says it all: "Nothing But the Truth." His goal is to convince readers that Israel's current prime minister - 20 years ago, the defense minister of a nation at war - deceived the reigning prime minister, the government and the entire public.

The subtitle of the book in Hebrew describes it as the "story of a libel suit," but it is much more than that. Through the story of the lawsuit, which dragged on for 11 years, Benziman not only portrays Ariel Sharon's moral defects, but also the moral blight of the political, military, journalistic and judicial elite, who, out of cowardice, opportunism, fear and the desire to settle scores, avoided exposing these defects during the Lebanon War and have continued to do so in the two decades since.

Many pages of the book document the search of Benziman and his dedicated lawyer, Mibi Mozer, for witnesses to the deception in Lebanon who would agree to testify in court. "It was an astonishing phenomenon," he writes. "Public figures, former politicians and senior officers in the reserves joined forces in a conspiracy of silence on the subject of the Lebanon War. They did not want to be involved, preferring to let the lies remain, although they were intimately familiar with the details (and even said so to the media)."

Even the joy of winning the lawsuit did not obscure Benziman's "recognition that, apart from a select few, Israel's top military and political echelons are full of cowards (some of whom apparently feel that they are accomplices to the crime), afraid to tell the truth about the Lebanon War lest it get them into trouble with Ariel Sharon. These individuals prefer to gloss over his indiscretions, motivated by cynical vested interests."

One of the few brave people, according to the book, was Dr. Benny Begin, whose willingness to submit an affidavit, appear as a witness and divulge information confided by his late father, was of critical importance to the outcome of the trial.

Even more disconcerting and embarrassing is the fact that among the cowards are several well-known journalistic colleagues of Benziman (and myself), who were fearful of testifying or being cross-examined in court about what they wrote or said about the war.

This silence aggravated Benziman's legal troubles. He knew that many agreed with him about Sharon's conduct, but he found that they would not back him up in his fight to lay bare the truth, ultimately abandoning him on the battlefield. The fact that the book is based on a personal diary written in real time helps to convey an authentic and moving picture of the journalist fighting for his beliefs.

Journalistic constraints

I have no idea what, if anything, Benziman "censored" from his diary, but what remains is remarkably frank and open. He does not conceal his doubts and fears about the outcome of the legal battle, or skip over the moments of frustration, crisis and emotional fatigue that almost cause him to give up.

From this standpoint, Benziman's concern, expressed in the introduction, about sounding like a megalomaniac, is totally unfounded. The Uzi Benziman who emerges from this book is a man with human weaknesses and frailties, but they only make us admire his stubborn persistence all the more. He credits his wife and children with providing him with the fighting spirit to keep going. His moving descriptions of the family discussions convince us that they truly are "a matchless team of helpers and supporters."

The fears and calculations of potential witnesses were not Benziman's only problem. Like any journalist sued for libel, he had to cope with an unfriendly legal system that ignores the constraints of working for a newspaper. Israel's libel laws, unlike those in the United States, require not only a reasonably professional verification of facts before publishing a story about a public figure, but also evidence that stands up in a court of law.

Ostensibly, this requirement is logical and justified: A negative story in the newspaper can do as much harm to a public official as being convicted of a crime, if not more. For good reason, the rabbis taught that "shaming a person in public is akin to spilling his blood." We know, unfortunately, of cases where a public person, humiliated and defamed, has been driven to suicide. So why shouldn't we demand of a journalist the same burden of proof imposed on prosecutors in a criminal trial?

The trouble is that this very sensible-sounding, very justified argument ignores the constraints of working in the field of journalism. Unlike criminal prosecutors, journalists do not have a team of police investigators at their beck and call, or the authority to force witnesses to answer their questions and hand over documents.

The problem is compounded when the subject of the story is a public figure. Usually, those who can supply information about the misdeeds and indiscretions of such a person are people who work closely with him, and are totally dependent on him for their livelihood and careers. That is why a journalist's sources - in this country, too - are confidential. But this confidentiality, which helps the journalist when he publishes a story, becomes an impediment when he needs to defend himself against charges of libel. It prevents him from having sources testify on his behalf in court.

In other words, the demand that a journalist back up every story about a public person with legal evidence may make exposing and condemning wrongdoing almost impossible. As Justice Theodore Or stated in a precedent-setting opinion on libel: "The media may have at its disposal information that properly establishes the truth of the data it publishes. In the interests of public knowledge, this data is worthy of publication. Often, however, it is hard to prove that the data is true in the framework of a legal proceeding, with its many rules and procedures governing evidence."

In this context, Justice Or brings up the Watergate scandal, which first broke on the strength of information supplied by "Deep Throat," an anonymous confidential source who could not, of course, be summoned to testify. If the American law system were identical to ours, The Washington Post would have had a hard time defending itself in the libel suit filed by President Richard Nixon, and the paper would have been more hesitant, perhaps, to expose his slyness and dishonesty. But the law is different in the U.S. If a public figure sues for libel, it is up to him to prove that the journalist has published a lie, and has done so out of malice or criminal negligence.

The real scoop

In addition to the legal hassles that face every journalist, Sharon vs. Ha'aretz involved not only intimidation of witnesses, but a concerted effort on the part of the whole administration - with the backing of the attorney-general - to deny Benziman and his attorney access to official documents from the period of the Lebanon War (including government protocols).

Incidentally, prohibiting publication of testimony on the Lebanon War, and the actions of Sharon, in particular, on the grounds of state security, has continued, although the trial is over. For example, the request of MK Zahava Gal-On, a member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, to publicize the testimony heard by the Kahan Commission when it investigated the massacre at Sabra and Chatila, was recently turned down. The total blackout on the investigation has remained in force for 20 years, although Sharon himself said he had no objections to lifting the censorship and opening the files to the public.

In spite of all these difficulties, Attorney Mozer succeeded in proving, to the satisfaction of the court, that Benziman was right when he wrote on May 17, 1991 that "Menachem Begin knew very well that he had been duped by Sharon" during the Lebanon War. In his opinion, Judge Moshe Talgam wrote that "the evidence submitted to the court sufficiently bears out the contention that Prime Minister Begin knew Sharon had not been honest with him, and had secured his blessing and that of the government without disclosing his objectives, on the strength of misleading reports."

The real scoop, in my opinion, has to do with a fascinating piece of evidence that reached Benziman only after the verdict was handed down, and was never, unfortunately, discussed in court: In an affidavit submitted by Colonel (res.) Ilan Wechselbaum, the colonel testifies that he heard Sharon order Major-General Avigdor Ben-Gal to attack the First Syrian Division and then promise Prime Minister Begin on the phone that our forces would move carefully so as not to provoke a clash with the Syrians.

The sweet moment of victory, when the judges of the district court exonerate Benziman, is clouded, however, in his eyes and the eyes of his readers, by the grim and depressing realization - the book's most significant message - that the moral dysfunction of our society is so severe that the honesty and integrity of our leaders doesn't even matter to us.

That is not how things looked when the battle began. The outcome of the trial was seen back then as a factor that could make or break Sharon's public career. Benziman points out that many people (among them attorney Mozer and Ha'aretz publisher Amos Schocken) felt the case was important precisely because the verdict would have implications for Sharon's prime ministerial ambitions. Witnesses for the defense were recruited on these grounds. But even after the court established in the most straightforward manner that Sharon had been deceitful, his star did not fade. On the contrary: He marched forward, from strength to strength, until he realized his dream of becoming prime minister.

Considering how little this harsh verdict affected Sharon's career, his appeal was perceived as an anti-climax. Indeed, the Supreme Court did its utmost to persuade Sharon to drop the appeal. When Sharon persisted, the court rejected his claim of libel and ordered him to pay Benziman and Ha'aretz's legal expenses. On the other hand, it deliberately avoided upholding or rejecting Judge Talgam's adamant contention that Sharon had been proved guilty of misleading Begin and the government.

For the highest court of law in Israel to evade the issue and adopt no resolute stance one way or the other, is odd and even disturbing. Benziman's explanation is that Sharon filed the appeal when he was already prime minister. To my mind, when the person involved is an active head of state, the need to establish his honesty, and either confirm or repudiate misdeeds attributed to him, is all the greater. I am not saying that the Supreme Court should have initiated a debate on this question, but once the matter was brought before it - by Sharon himself, who wanted to clear his name - ignoring it was wrong.

By skirting the issue and leaving wide open the question of our national leader's integrity and uprightness, one begins to suspect that the Supreme Court is also peopled by cowards like the ones Benziman met up with in the course of the trial, who are prepared to help cover up the misdeeds of a powerful man rather than face his wrath.

"For evil to triumph," said the British statesman Edmund Burke, "good men have to do nothing." Too many good men in this country - also at the pinnacle of the judicial system - prefer to do nothing. Even after the publication of this important book, I fear that the voices of the isolated few who dare to break the silence - courageous individuals like Uzi Benziman - are destined to remain a cry in the wilderness.

Moshe Negbi is the Israel Broadcasting Authority's commentator on legal affairs and a senior lecturer in communications at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.