Time Inc. said in a statement today that the weekly magazine will print a correction or retraction of the 1983 article that prompted Ariel Sharon's $50 million libel suit if secret Israeli documents sought by Time do not support key details in the story.
Stuart Gold, a lawyer for the publishing empire, said they will still fight the libel suit by proving the "substantial truth" of the statement, and by showing it did not defame Sharon and was not motivated by "actual malice," the elements of libel that Sharon must prove to prevail.
Time's lawyers would not explain why the magazine was indicating a possible willingness to print a retraction nearly 22 months after the article was published.
Time reporters and writers have testified in the five-week-old trial that the controversial portions of the article were based on information from confidential Israeli military and governmental sources who had seen the documents. But Time Israeli correspondent David Halevy was forced to acknowledge on the stand that he had no source for one specific detail in the piece, rather had "inferred" it.
Time's statement was attached to a letter U.S. District Court Judge Abraham D. Sofaer sent Israeli officials today in the long negotiations between the court and the Israeli cabinet to gain permission for inspection of secret documents related to Sharon's role in the massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in Beirut in September 1982.
Sharon's lead attorney, Milton S. Gould, indicated that he and his client were undecided whether to continue their legal battle against Time if the magazine prints a correction.
"I don't know," Gould said. "If I see it, I make the decision."
Several weeks ago, Gould had said that for Sharon winning meant getting Time to acknowledge that the article was untrue and that if a jury decided to award damages to the former defense minister, that would be "winning big."
On Tuesday, Sharon disclosed in an interview that he has plans to establish a fund for Israeli citizens and other Jews to wage similar libel battles in the future if he wins monetary damages from his suit.
His case against Time is focused on one paragraph of a Feb. 21, 1983, cover story on the findings of Israel's Kahan commission, which investigated the massacre in two Palestinian refugee camps.
Time reported that a secret appendix to the report contained details of a conversation Sharon had with the family of Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia commander Bashir Gemayel the day after he was assassinated. Time said Sharon discussed with Bashir Gemayel's father Pierre, then the political leader of the Phalangists, and his brother, Amin, now Lebanon's president, the need for them to take revenge for Bashir's death. A day later Sharon sent Lebanese Christian militia into two Beirut Palestinian camps, where they massacred hundreds of Palestinians.
Although Sharon acknowledges paying a condolence call on the Gemayels and meeting with other Phalangists the day before the massacre, he denies discussing revenge with them and says minutes of his conversation are not in the secret appendix.
Sharon testified that he has inspected the appendix three times. The Israeli cabinet, however, has blocked similar access to Time on national security and foreign policy grounds.
Earlier this month, in response to appeals by Judge Sofaer, the cabinet agreed to allow the former chairman of the now-defunct commission, Yitzhak Kahan, to reexamine classified commission documents and respond in writing to questions raised in the case: Does the appendix contain any evidence or suggestion that Sharon discussed with either the Gemayels or other Phalangists the need to avenge the death of Bashir and does it contain any evidence or suggestion that Sharon knew in advance the Phalangists would massacre civilians if they went into the Palestinian camps unaccompanied by Israeli soldiers?
Time's lawyers have said they will not agree to admission of Kahan's responses as evidence unless a Time representative can inspect the material along with him.
In its statement today, Time said that if the answers to the questions are negative, "Time will immediately release the questions and answers and Time will print a correction or retraction of its story, as appropriate."
Sharon's counsel has said he is willing to accept Kahan's answers so long as they agree with his testimony but would have reservations about their introduction if there were discrepancies.
Judge Sofaer suggested today in his letter to Israeli officials that representatives of Time and of Sharon be permitted to inspect the material.
"In the light of the heavy burden of proving falsity that American courts impose on government officials who sue for libel," the judge said, "a blanket policy of nondisclosure may lead some publications to feel free to libel Israeli officials and attribute false accusations to secret documents, since they will know that the plaintiff will be unable to disprove their allegations by reference to those documents.
"Conversely plaintiffs may be encouraged to bring groundless suits, since they will know the defendants will be unable to prove the truth of accurate information they obtain from confidential sources."
In private conference, the judge confessed that he did not believe that the Israeli cabinet would allow Time representatives to inspect the documents. "I feel the odds are against us," he said. CAPTION: Picture, Ariel Sharon . . . seeking $50 million in libel suit.