Netanyahu awarded damages after a predecessor called him ‘mentally ill’
By Isabel Kershner
Even by the often toxic standards of Israeli political discourse there are limits, a judge ruled Monday, awarding damages to the newly designated prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, and members of his family in a libel suit they brought against another former prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who had described them as being “mentally ill.”
The ruling brought an end to a lurid and at times circuslike courtroom drama during which Olmert brought witnesses to testify about disturbing goings-on in the Netanyahu household, including accusations of afflictions such as eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive behavior, narcissism and paranoia.
But, according to the judge, Amit Yariv, despite all the hours of testimony, Olmert failed to establish or produce any professional medical diagnosis to back up his assertions and had gone beyond the bounds of expressing an opinion in good faith that would be protected by the principles of free speech. The judge ruled that Olmert had defamed Netanyahu; Netanyahu’s wife, Sara; and their eldest son, Yair, in a television interview that Olmert gave around the time of a bitter and inconclusive election in the spring of 2021.
“Another mendacious plot against Prime Minister Netanyahu, his wife and family has been shattered,” Yossi Cohen, the Netanyahus’ lawyer, said in a statement after the ruling, which was broadcast live.
“It is good to know that, even in the crazy and delusional world in which we have grown accustomed to, the tolerance with which crude and hurtful falsehoods can be spread about the prime minister, his wife and family, clear and absolute boundaries have been set, putting an end to Olmert’s evil lie,” Cohen added.
The Netanyahus had demanded about $250,000 in damages but were awarded $18,000 in total.
Olmert’s lawyer, Amir Tytunovich, tried to turn the loss into a win.
“The final result is that by serving the suit, the harsh statements made by Mr. Olmert received wide exposure and were brought to the attention of the entire public,” Tytunovich said in a statement.
“The Netanyahu family, who turned to the court in the hope of receiving a ‘certificate of sanity,’ came out without one,” he added.
The two sides have up to 60 days to appeal the outcome.
Neither Olmert nor the Netanyahus were present for the reading of the verdict in court.
Netanyahu and his right-wing and religious bloc emerged victorious from the Nov. 1 election just 16 months after he was ousted from office by a fragile coalition of opponents. Before that, he had been prime minister for 12 consecutive years — and 15 years overall — making him Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.
Netanyahu’s comeback in this month’s election — Israel’s fifth in under four years — comes even as his trial for corruption drags on. Olmert is also no stranger to court. In office from 2006 to 2009, he was convicted in 2014 of taking a bribe while he was mayor of Jerusalem and served 16 months in prison.
Netanyahu has portrayed the charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three separate but interlinked cases against him as a witch hunt, accusing the law enforcement and judicial authorities of framing him as part of a liberal deep-state plot.
Sara Netanyahu has also been prosecuted in the past for her treatment of household staff, while Yair Netanyahu, 31, has sued and been sued in other libel cases.
Many Israeli observers were surprised at the Netanyahu family’s decision to sue Olmert, saying that his statements from 2021 would have long been forgotten by the public. But the Netanyahus argued in court that Olmert had crossed a line by suggesting that he was privy, as a former prime minister, to some kind of psychiatric record or clinical diagnosis that did not exist.
Either way, the case had little effect on Israeli voters, many of whom apparently made up their minds long ago regarding their support for or opposition to Netanyahu and his family.
The judge in the libel case, who struggled to maintain decorum during the sometimes farcical proceedings during the testimony phase, said that he had taken no pleasure in hearing the case.
“It would have been better if the proceedings that took place in my court had not taken place at all,” he wrote in his ruling, adding, “The proceedings, and the testimonies that were aired in its course, did not add any honor to either side, nor to the institution of the prime ministry, a role served by both Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Olmert.”
The judge explained that the scale of compensation should be linked to the extent that the plaintiffs had a choice in the matter of becoming public figures, whose position necessarily exposed them to criticism. Ordinarily, that would mean a prime minister’s being awarded the least amount; a spouse a middling amount; and children, who generally have little or no say in their parents’ choices, the most.
In this case, Netanyahu was awarded 20,000 shekels, or about $5,800, and Sara Netanyahu was awarded 35,000 shekels. But Yair Netanyahu was awarded a reduced amount of 7,500 shekels, because Olmert had demonstrated in court that the younger Netanyahu had described other public figures, including another former prime minister, Ehud Barak, as being mentally ill in similar terms to those used by Olmert.
The Netanyahus were also awarded about $10,000 to cover legal costs.