Time magazine won the final round in the $50 million libel suit brought against it by former Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, though the six-member jury criticized the magazine in a stern statement. Read by jury foreman Peter Zug, the statement said: ``We find that certain Time employees, particularly correspondent David Halevy, acted negligently and carelessly in reporting and verifying the information that ultimately found its way into the published paragraph of interest in this case.''
But after more than 40 hours of deliberation, the jury found that the weekly news magazine did not act with actual malice or reckless disregard for the truth in a cover story about Mr. Sharon's role in the massacre of Palestinian civilians in two Beirut refugee camps in September 1982.
On the steps of the US District Court in Manhattan after the trial, Mr. Sharon, now Israeli minister of industry and commerce, said he had come to the United States in order to prove that ``Time magazine had lied'' in its reporting, and that he had managed to prove that.
The dispute centered on a paragraph in an article in the Feb. 21, 1983, issue of Time reporting on the findings of an Israeli commission that looked into the Sept. 16, 1982, massacre of Palestinian civilians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla in West Beirut.
The paragraph said, in part, that Sharon met with Phalangists and the Gemayel family after the assassination of Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayel and told them that he expected Christian forces to go into the Palestinian refugee camps. It further said, ``Sharon also reportedly discussed with the Gemayels the need for the Phalangists to take revenge for the assassination of Bashir, but details of the conversation are not known.''
Sharon has contended that he never spoke to Phalangists about revenge, and that the paragaph in essence labeled him a ``mass murderer.''
Last week the jury agreed that Sharon had been defamed by the article because an average reader would understand it to mean that Sharon ``consciously intended'' to allow the Phalangists to go into the camps and kill noncombatants.
The jury also found that the paragraph was false.
Time managing editor Ray Cave told reporters afterward that though Time was ``immensely pleased'' with the verdict, he disagreed with the jury's two decisions and with their statement afterward. He said the magazine still stood by the ``substantial truth'' of the story, and that it would have been proven if Time had had access to more information or witnesses that the Israeli government kept from them.
Milton Gould, Sharon's attorney, countered that his client had been ``fully vindicated.'' He said the jury decided Sharon was defamed, and that the information in Time was false. Mr. Gould added, ``The only thing we didn't get was the money.''
Peter Goldman, executive director of Americans for a Safe Israel, said, ``The loss does not change the fact that Time magazine and other major media have for years been guilty of anti-Israel bias and onesided and distorted reporting from the Middle East. While Sharon proved that Time falsified its story, it is very difficult for a public offcial to prove malicious intent.
``Americans for a Safe Israel has in the past documented Time's deliberate falsification of Middle East news. It is unfortunate the judge did not allow this type of prior evidence into the trial. Had it been allowed, I am convinced it would have shown malicious intent.''
Libel trial lawyer Martin Garbus said, ``I think it's a defeat for the press that the trial went on as long as did did.'' He added that he thought the judge should have thrown the case out. As a result of such a costly lawsuit, there will be ``increased self- censorship,'' he said.
``I think Time won, Sharon won, but I think with respect to freedom of the press, the fact that lawsuits like this exist is damaging,'' added Mr. Garbus.
Time released a statement saying the magazine ``feels strongly that the case should never have reached an American courtroom. It was brought by a foreign politician attempting to recoup his political fortunes. He could not sue Israel's Kahan Commission, which had found him guilty of indirect responsibility for the massacres at Sabra and Shatilla. . . . So he sued Time. This caused a long, expensive, and inappropirate legal action.''