Despite major courtroom victories in his $50 million libel suit, Ariel Sharon said he will not be satisfied until he teaches Time magazine "a kind of lesson" and makes it "more cautious when it comes to the truth and professional journalism."
The former Israeli defense minister, in a two-hour interview in the Regency Hotel suite that has become his command post, said Time had attacked him with more intensity than even his Arab foes.
"These things that they wrote were written in hatred," he said. "I never felt hatred of the Arabs when I fought them. Here there was a vicious system, and I felt a hatred when I faced a vicious system."
Although he described himself as a champion of free expression, Sharon dismissed the worries of those who say his lawsuit and retired Army general William C. Westmoreland's similar legal battle against CBS could have a "chilling effect" on journalists seeking the truth.
"What should bother the people who believe in the freedom of the media and the freedom of the press is this kind of behavior of Time ," he said.
Sharon brushed aside the assertion in the closing argument of Time's lead lawyer, Thomas Barr, that the suit was an effort by Sharon to erase the stain -- the "mark of Cain," Sharon called it at the time -- of an Israeli commission's finding that he bore "indirect responsibility" for the 1982 Beirut massacres and their recommendation leading to his ouster as defense minister.
But, as Sharon admitted in the interview, he still hopes to become Israel's prime minister, although he said that once the trial is over he would like to travel, meet people and pursue a range of interests that include music, art, geography and farming.
"If you ask me is the only thing I can see in my mind is to be prime minister of Israel, the answer is no," he said. "No doubt I will try to do it but there are so many other things I would like to do."
An examination of secret Israeli documents in Jerusalem Jan. 6 uncovered no evidence to support allegations in a paragraph of a 1983 Time cover story reporting that Sharon had discussed the need for revenge with Lebanese Christian Phalangist leaders before sending their militiamen into two Beirut refugee camps where they massacred hundreds of Palestinians over a 36-hour period.
Time, saying its representative had been denied access to all documents collected by the commission investigating the massacres, refused to concede that it was wrong about the conversation but did acknowledge in court that a secret appendix to the commission's report did not contain the details, as it had reported.
In aborted negotiations for an out-of-court settlement last week, Time agreed to make a partial retraction and issue a statement of "regret" for the error. Sharon, who on Friday said there had never been any such negotiation, acknowledged Saturday that such efforts had been made but said he still insists on a full retraction and a printed apology.
The case goes to the jury Monday. The six jurors must determine whether Sharon has proved that the Time paragraph defamed him and that the magazine printed it knowing it was false or having serious doubts about its accuracy.
Barr, in his closing arguments to the jury Thursday, emphasized these two points. The next day, Milton S. Gould, Sharon's lead attorney, acknowledged in a summation that he had botched the defamation argument. He ran out of time and steam before detailing the case for believing that Time knew the paragraph to be false, and told the jury that the judge would have to explain that element to them.
In the interview Saturday, Sharon declined to speculate on the outcome of the case. "We are in the middle of a battle," he said.
Whatever the outcome, Sharon noted that his suit against the international edition of Time over the same paragraph is pending in Israel, where libel is much easier to prove, and probably will be ready for trial in about seven months. "No doubt we're going to sue them there," he said.
There is a rough-hewn charm to Sharon, perhaps Israel's most controversial figure. During the trial, his explosive temper for the most part has been reined in, although a question sometimes has touched off a sudden rise of anger, which he has managed quickly to suppress.
Coming from a society where the politicians dress in shirtsleeves and khakis, he seems uncomfortable in the ill-fitting suits draping his burly frame, the uniform he has donned for the trial. He said he misses his farm in Israel and does not like living in a hotel, although one consolation is that his wife, Lilly, has been with him and cooks for him.
The stay in New York for the trial, which began Nov. 13, has not been all drudgery. One weekend he went to the races with friend Sidney Zion, a Manhattan lawyer and publicist. Mayor Edward I. Koch had Sharon to Gracie Mansion for a Hanukah celebration in December.
In the interview, Sharon stated his case with more precision than his attorney had. He has mastered the skill of switching on and off the record and of anticipating a reporter's questions.
Sharon said he had three objectives in bringing the suit in the United States. He wanted to show that "Time magazine lied and published a fabricated story. This objective, the first of the three has been achieved," he said. The second, he said, was to get worldwide attention for the effort.
"The third objective was that Time magazine will understand that I was ready to go very far in order to prevent them in the future to libel or to lie about me or about any other Israeli and in order to bring them to think again about what should be called a proper and true and professional journalism. I believe that they started to understand that should be done.
"I believe that that will be a kind of lesson to teach them in the future to be much more cautious when it comes to the truth and professional journalism," he said.
Although Sharon dissented bitterly in Israel when the investigative commission released its findings, he conceded during the trial that he "made a mistake" in sending Phalangist militiamen into Palestinian refugee camps.
"But from this mistake that I made to the allegation of Time magazine is a very long way to go," he said. "What they did is they murdered my character, while I never murdered anybody."
Asked if he ever wakes up in the night to a vision of the bodies of the men, women and children slaughtered in the camps, Sharon seemed taken aback.
He paused, then launched into the set speech he made on the witness stand and has since repeated.
"I regard casualties altogether as a tragic thing, even if the casualties are your enemies and no doubt if the casualties are civilians. I regard the casualties as a tragic thing. But I would like to emphasize one thing. No one of us -- I speak of the Israelis -- no one of our soldiers, no one of our commanders, no one of our political persons, no one of us was involved in that tragic event. We never saw that that could have happened. If we could have seen that that could have happened we would have never let it happen."