Ariel Sharon, who died January 2014 after eight years in a coma, was not known for his calm and easygoing demeanor. After being forcibly removed from his position as Defense Minister, Sharon fought to get back into the political spotlight. In late 1983, he accused U.S. Ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis and Israeli politician Smicha Erlich of conspiring against him to get him demoted. With a stream of false accusations, Sharon launched an all-out media attack, even though he was unable to produce a single form of corroborating evidence. In these excerpts, Lewis tells how the situation unfolded when he was back in Washington. He regrets that he listened to those who advised not to issue a denial immediately after the story broke, which only allowed the rumors to circulate. He was interviewed by Peter Jessup beginning in August 1998.
You can also read about Ambassador Harrison Symmes’ dispute with Jordan’s King Hussein, Ambassador Hume Horan’s run-in with King Fahd, and other Moments on the Middle East.
“That man must go”
LEWIS: I would now like to start with a series of events that took place in December 1983.… I have previously referred to my private meeting that took place at the end of 1982 with Simcha Erlich, then Vice Premier and Minister of Finance in [Menachem] Begin’s Cabinet and leader of the Liberal Party. He was a strong supporter of the United States and a good personal friend. That meeting figured a year later in my bitter encounter with Sharon.…
I had left Israel for what turned out to be an unanticipated two months’ absence. I left on November 19, 1983 to return to Washington to participate in… important meetings with Prime Minister Shamir — Begin’s successor — and Defense Minister Arens — Sharon’s successor after the publication of the Kahan Commission review of the Sabra-Shatila affair [in which hundreds of Palestinians were massacred in Lebanon in September 1982] .…
I didn’t return to Israel until January 26, 1984. I had not been in the United States very long when this affair exploded in Israel; I had to deal with it at long distance, which is probably why I didn’t react to it as quickly as I should have. Had I been in Israel, the whole business might have been put to rest sooner.
On December 4, I went to a Redskin football game. I am an avid Redskin fan and the Redskins were Super Bowl-bound that season. It was at that moment a dramatic news story was developing in Israel. I learned subsequently that on that morning’s TV news show in Israel, the correspondent, Shimon Schiffer, who was then and still is a very important political commentator, reported a very garbled version of the meeting I had with Erlich a year earlier.…
It was alleged that there was documentary evidence to support the story; it has never been produced and I am sure it does not exist because what Sharon and his henchmen put out was quite different from the facts. Schiffer reported that there was a “protocol” (the Israeli term for transcript) of a conversation, the details of which had come to his attention; those details were allegedly supported by a witness to the conversation. This conversation was supposed to have taken place shortly before the Kahan Commission had completed its report. [Note: The Kahan Commission investigated Sabra and Shatila and concluded that the Israeli military was aware of the massacres but did nothing to stop them and blamed then Defense Minister Ariel Sharon of “ignoring the danger of bloodshed and revenge”.]
The “protocol” allegedly had me saying to Erlich, in reference to Sharon, that “That man must go. You must understand that Begin is not going to be invited to the United States, as he wished to be, because of him. Furthermore, U.S.-Israeli relationships had suffered because of him”. Erlich allegedly replied: “Sam, we are aware of the problem. I promise he will leave the government. The Kahan Commission will pass its verdict. The Prime Minister (Begin) is already aware of the mistake he made when he made him Defense Minister. After the Commission’s report is published, Begin will assure that he is put aside in a position of no importance”.
Schiffer’s report claimed that there were three people present at the meeting: Erlich, myself and Naftali Yaniv, who was the spokesman for the Agriculture Ministry.… He was said to have been there as a translator, had taken notes and made the transcript. Schiffer also said that the conversation was recorded on tape cassette. He went on to say that after Erlich’s death — he had died in mid-1983 — his secretary had passed this document together with other documents and the cassette to Erlich’s widow, Zila. Just before his report was to be televised, Schiffer had called our Embassy press spokesman and asked for a comment. The spokesman, certainly under the DCM’s [Deputy Chief of Mission] guidance, said that I had met with Erlich from time to time, sometimes at the Minister’s request, but that he couldn’t confirm any of the details of any conversation.…
But the TV report started a major uproar which reverberated for weeks thereafter. It led to a sharp confrontation between Sharon and me. Sharon urged that I be declared persona non grata .… The initial press stories, in the Jerusalem Post and other papers, accepted the fact that a meeting had taken place. Schiffer was viewed as a credible correspondent and the press therefore assumed the veracity of the story. This view was reinforced by the fact that the Embassy’s spokesman had not denied the essence of the story; he refused to comment. That position was viewed as tantamount to confirmation. It is an attitude that prevailed in Israel; I had long ago learned that unless you immediately jump on a distorted version of a story, it was assumed to be correct and will be accepted as fact in all sorts of subsequent discussions. Had I been there, I would have immediately issued a flat and vigorous denial. But I wasn’t and in fact, the Embassy did not contact me immediately, which was another mistake.
The Situation Does Not Blow Over Quickly
The next morning in Washington… one of the Israeli correspondents asked me about the Schiffer report; that was the first I had heard about it. As you can well imagine, I was upset, to put it mildly. I didn’t have the text of the Schiffer report, so I couldn’t really respond in any depth. I did dismiss the accuracy of the report, as described to me by the Israeli correspondent. I called the DCM, Robert Flaten, and was briefed. He told me what the Embassy had said. Flaten’s view, supported by the Embassy’s press spokesman, was not to take the Schiffer report too seriously; their advice was not to dignify it further by any comment from me. They expected the story to blow over quickly.
That unfortunately was not good advice; I knew it was not good advice, but for some reason I accepted it. So we took no immediate action to set the record straight. The problem was that there were elements of the story which were true. For example, there had been a meeting; it had been about the sorry state of U.S.-Israel relations; Sharon’s name had been mentioned by Erlich [seen at left]. So I could not flatly deny the whole story; we would have had to confirm part of the story. That was undoubtedly one of the reasons why the Embassy thought it wiser not to deal with the story at the time; if it were to grow, then it would have to be dealt with.
Over the succeeding days, the story spun out of control. I was in Washington trying to prepare myself for a major address that I was to give on Tuesday January 7 in Baltimore.… I was going to talk about the peace process and U.S.-Israel relations. I had not yet written it and so I was very preoccupied with this task. That also diverted my attention from the uproar in Israel, which I should have paid more attention to. In the meantime, back in Israel, all the major press were running the story.…
[The weekly newsmagazine] Ha’Olam Ha’Ze talked to Schiffer and to Yaniv, the Agriculture Ministry spokesman who attended the meeting. So that paper printed a fairly accurate story, which indicated that no transcript existed. It stated that whenever I met with Erlich, whose English was rudimentary –that is he could understand quite well if you spoke slowly, but could not express himself very well — he preferred to speak in Hebrew.
So we needed an interpreter to translate his comments into English and to assist with my comments if Erlich was unsure about my meaning. Yaniv was a young civil servant in the Agriculture Ministry, whose head had earlier been Sharon. He was very loyal to Erlich and a fine person. Yaniv apparently reported the meeting as it had taken place; he apparently said that my meeting with Erlich was not unique. Whenever he translated, Yaniv said that he took notes of Erlich’s comments because they needed to be translated. He also said that he may have written down a few of my comments, but that he did not attend the meeting to draft a transcript subsequently; that was not part of his assignment.
After my meeting with Erlich, Yaniv was in a hurry to leave; he had with him some sheets of paper with the notes he had taken at the meeting and as he left, he dropped those notes on Erlich’s secretary’s desk…. She took the notes and stuck them in a safe, where they stayed until after Erlich’s death. After his death, the secretary, for reasons yet unknown, pulled out the documents in the safe and sent them to Mrs. Erlich. She was interviewed a week after the Schiffer report by a journalist and denied that there had been any transcript….
“We suspected that the Schiffer report may have been manufactured by Sharon”
Sharon immediately picked up on the Schiffer report. Schiffer and Sharon had been close friends for many years in the past, although they had a falling out over the Lebanon invasion…. Before that, he had been one of Sharon’s favorite channels for leaks which supported Sharon’s views. Despite their falling out, many Israelis and I suspected that the story had been manufactured by Sharon and Schiffer as a way of getting Sharon back into the headlines.
I mentioned earlier the damning findings of the Kahan Commission. That Commission had demanded that Sharon resign as Defense Minister, which he did and then was given the job of Minister without Portfolio — he had no job. Sharon remained in the Begin Cabinet as a pariah. He was bitter at the way he had been treated and very unhappy with having been shuffled off to the side. He wanted to get back into the arena.
As the U.S.-Syrian confrontation in Lebanon began in the Fall of 1983, Sharon was saying that the U.S. was finally beginning to understand what he had tried to do in June 1982. That was only one method of many that Sharon was using to try to get back into political power. He disdained Shamir and never took him seriously; he never accepted Shamir as Begin’s successor.
Shamir detested Sharon, but he was very careful how he dealt with him. In fact, Shamir just ignored Sharon. That made it hard for Sharon to find a way back, particularly since his reputation was still in low repute as result of the Kahan Commission report. Many journalists, other Israelis and I began to suspect that the whole Schiffer report and subsequent uproar may have been manufactured by Sharon, although none of us could ever find any evidence of such a plot and of course Sharon denied the allegation vigorously.
While the uproar in Israel continued, the Embassy kept its silence. Each day I would call from Washington and I would always receive the advice to not respond to allegations on the assumption that the flurry would die down soon. But I was increasingly concerned about the advice.
On Wednesday, December 9, Sharon was interviewed by a TV correspondent; it was a medium that was tailor made for his demagogue style. During this session, Sharon gave out the text of the letter he had sent to Shamir two days earlier. In that letter, he demanded that Shamir initiate a full investigation of the charges that the American Ambassador had tried to influence domestic Israeli matters by trying to have an Israeli Minister fired. He said that that was unacceptable behavior and demanded a full inquiry.
Shamir had ignored previous Sharon demands for that investigation; that led Sharon to write the letter and distribute it to the press…. Sharon was a shrewd person who could write, although he may have had some assistance in this letter from members of his staff. As I mentioned he held a TV interview on December 9, during which he elaborated on the themes in the letter with considerable additional embellishment.…
He was pressed very hard about any proof that might be available to support his charges. He never offered any saying that he did not have any documents. He said that Erlich may not have liked him, but he thought that carrying his bias so far as to conspire with foreign elements to force his withdrawal from the Cabinet was beyond the pale. Then Sharon began to stress that a Commission of Inquiry was required to look into all of these charges; he was confident that it would find the corroborative evidence.
Finally, he was asked straight out whether he had any evidence himself. He said that he would not divulge that information despite the fact that the TV interviewer was “his friend”. He felt that the task of finding evidence was up to the Commission.
In addition, he argued that since Erlich had promised me that Sharon would be discharged that this was evidence of conspiracy between the American and Israeli governments. He went as far as charging that the Kahan Commission was really part of that plot and that Erlich knew what the outcome would be, which enabled him to assure me that Sharon would be removed from his post once the Commission report was issued. That outlandish accusation also back-fired on Sharon eventually because the well established objectivity and thoroughness of the Kahan Commission was viewed as making the allegation totally ridiculous.…
An Israeli Columnist Helps Out
By December 9, I had become very concerned with developments in Israel. By this time, I was sure that the furor would not die down and that Sharon would surely make a campaign of it. I now felt that some counter-measures had to be taken, even though it was clear that Shamir was not reacting at all in the hope that the matter would blow over soon….So I asked Bob Flaten–I believe on December 10–after having heard about Sharon’s TV interview, to talk to Hanan Bar-on who was our closest contact point in the Foreign Ministry and a good personal friend.… I was told that the Prime Minister didn’t take it seriously and that he was not concerned about it and would prefer that I not make any public statement.
Twenty hours later, I received another call from Flaten. He just had heard from Bar-on. This time, I was told that the situation was heating up to the point where a clear public denial from me might be in order. By this time, eight days had already passed from the initial Schiffer report.…
That flat denial turned out to be quite useful, but it had come too late to stop the various stories, which continued to spin out of control. Some were, by this time, becoming favorable to me….
On December 10, I had a telephone call from a journalist — Mira Avrech — a close friend, from Israel…. She is essentially a gossip columnist; but she writes the most widely read column in Israel in the biggest paper, Yidiot, and she is also very politically oriented…. When she called, she told me that she had agreed to appear on a major TV panel talk show that Dan Raviv was hosting.
This was, at the time, probably the TV show with the second highest viewer audience in Israel….The subject of the panel show was going to be the “Lewis-Sharon affair”. Mira said that it would be helpful if I could give her a statement that she could use publicly; she thought that would reinforce what the Embassy had already said. And that is what I did; I gave her a further statement.
She handled herself extremely well on the panel. She said, in response to a question from Raviv concerning Sharon’s accusation of subversions and interference: “First, Lewis denies it. I talked to him today on the telephone when I knew I was going to be on your show.
He emphatically denies that he demanded Sharon’s ouster. In addition there is no proof that anything like that was ever said. I also called Mrs. Erlich. She told me that there are no minutes–‘I received no minutes’. She also said that Yaniv had told her that no such minutes exist. Mrs. Erlich added: ‘Sam Lewis can certainly sue someone for libel'”…. My denial, made through Mira, was carried widely by the press. The editorials, like the one that appeared in the Jerusalem Post the following day just blasted Sharon….
The “Tempest in a Tea Cup” Winds Down, but Still Problems with Sharon
By December 23, after three weeks, the brouhaha was beginning to wind down. There was still enough interest in it to generate a Knesset debate about Sharon and me; it lasted for about an hour.… The Knesset debate was tepid; there were only about twenty members (out of 120) on the floor. Sharon did not show up for the debate. By this time, he was clearly in retreat. Yehuda Ben-Meir, then the Deputy Foreign Minister (also a good friend of mine), articulated the government’s positions on the motions. He essentially said that the whole affair was a tempest in a tea cup. He read the Embassy’s denial and gave a lot of kudos to Erlich, describing him as a true patriot; he was “shocked” that anybody would challenge his integrity. All of Sharon’s allegations about “traitors” and “collaborationists” had really back-fired. Sharon had managed by this time to make Erlich a saint, which was perhaps something more than he deserved. Nevertheless, since he was dead, his character did not deserve to be assassinated..…
Around December 23, a cartoon appeared in Haaretz; it had been drawn by the leading cartoonist in Israel, Zeev. It is a fascinating cartoon, a copy of which I still possess and which is hanging on our walls. It’s entitled “At the Piano: Sam Lewis with the Zadikov Choir” (a well known choir). It shows me sitting at a piano, dressed in tails with an open shirt-which is what I always wore in Israel–playing a tune entitled “U.S.-Israeli Relations”.
The music is very sweet; the bars are floating up from the piano to a window through which you can see a White House-like building in the distance. There in front of the building are Reagan and [Secretary of State George] Shultz listening happily to the sound of my music. There is a choir of people who are singing with me. The choir consists of all of Israel’s political leaders–Begin, Shamir, Meir Amit, Ben Elizar, Weizmann, etc. The choir is using documents–Cabinet decisions, protocols, reports–all secret documents–as their music sheets. The choir is singing its secrets to the United States to the accompaniment of my piano. Down in the right hand corner, there is an open safe–Erlich’s safe.
Sharon is shown as a lumbering elephant–as he was often in Israeli cartoons–coming out of the safe, carrying a sign in his trunk, lettered “Commission of Inquiry”. As this elephant comes out of the safe, he is kicking over and breaking a lot of crockery filled with flowers. The vases are labeled “The Commission of Inquiry on the Sabra-Shatila Massacre”, “The agreement Habib made with Lebanon”, “The Israeli reactor on the Golan law”. These are filed in a waste paper basket next to the piano. The cartoon was an extraordinary effort to depict the High Commissioner [Ambassador Lewis] as the conductor of the Israeli choir. It sort of sums up the way the Israeli press liked to depict my role in their country after six and a half years as ambassador.
Unfortunately, this episode did not end my problems with Sharon. Up to this time, my relations with Sharon had been very correct. When we first arrived in Israel in 1977, Sharon was the Minister of Agriculture and responsible for settlement policy. He tried his best then to convince me and through me, the U.S. government, that Israeli settlements in the occupied territories were beneficial. He tried very hard to cultivate me.…
He became increasingly difficult and eventually impossible about the U.S. role in the area.… He was convinced then that his demise was the result of a U.S. conspiracy with the Israeli government. It was of course true that the U.S. government, from the top down, was very hostile toward him and publicly so. He continued to dig, in the Israeli press, at American presidents, Weinberger and others. Washington had become very cold about Sharon, which was a complete turnaround from the beginning of the Reagan administration; then it was very positive about him. It didn’t take the administration long to turn around. Shultz was very bitter and angry with Sharon, during the Lebanon war and afterwards. Sharon became pretty much persona non grata in Washington.