Reporter ordered to pay NIS 100k for claim Netanyahu was kicked out of car

PM and wife win libel suit against Igal Sarna for posting on Facebook about alleged marital spat; judge calls claim ‘malicious and ugly’

Israeli journalist Yigal Sarna waits at the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court on March 14, 2017. (AFP Photo/Pool/Heidi Levine)
Israeli journalist Yigal Sarna waits at the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court on March 14, 2017. (AFP Photo/Pool/Heidi Levine)

A Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court ordered journalist Igal Sarna to pay out NIS 100,000 ($28,300) to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara in a libel suit over a claim that a domestic dispute led to the prime minister being booted from his car on the side of a highway.

The Netanyahus last year filed a defamation suit against Sarna after he alleged in a Facebook post that Sara had stopped the prime minister’s convoy on a major highway and kicked her husband out on the side of the road.

In his ruling, Judge Azaria Alcalay said he agreed with the Netanyahus that “the publication was, at least partially, malicious and ugly, intended to humiliate and shame the plaintiffs.”

Sarna, a journalist for the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, did not cite a source for his allegations, and his account never appeared in the paper, known for being critical of Netanyahu.

Alcalay said the fact that Sarna did not try to corroborate the account was irresponsible and he did not buy into the argument that Facebook posts should not be regarded the same as accounts published by established news organizations.

“It is very important that as much as possible people internalize that they can not publish anything they want, especially if it is untrue and defamatory,” he wrote in the verdict.

Reacting to the verdict Sarna wrote on Facebook that he would appeal.

“This kind of verdict is expected in these dark days. But it is only the beginning of the struggle against the attempt to silence,” he wrote.

The ruling awarded NIS 60,000 to Benjamin Netanyahu, NIS 40,000 to Sara Netanyahu and another NIS 15,000 in legal fees.

The couple had demanded NIS 279,243 ($72,813) from Sarna over his claims in the libel suit at the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court. The reason for that specific amount was never made clear.

While the verdict said the account had hurt the Netanyahus public standing, it awarded the prime minister less than asked for because it did not “reach the highest threshold of severity.”

Alcalay added that the damage to Sara Netanyahu was smaller than that suffered by her husband in explaining why she was awarded less.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and his wife, Sara, as they enter the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court on March 14, 2017. (AFP/Heidi Levine, Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and his wife, Sara, as they enter the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court on March 14, 2017. (AFP/Heidi Levine, Pool)

In the lawsuit, the Netanyahus had claimed that Sarna, who is known for his strident attacks against them on Facebook, “has been carrying on for quite some time with his obsessive attempts to harm the complainants at any cost and to trample their good name out of sheer malice and bad intent.”

The soap opera trial even featured the March testimony of the prime minister who called the post a “vulgar lie… that led me here (to testify).”

Also appearing at court that day with her husband, Sara Netanyahu told reporters, “I am here because I am looking for the truth.

“If I had to sue over all the lies against me during the last 20 years, I would have spent all my days in court,” she added.

But she highlighted Sarna’s claim among the “very bad lies.”

Sarna has also emerged as one of the figures in Case 2000, one of the two corruption investigations into Netanyahu.

The case revolves around allegations that Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes attempted to reach a deal whereby the daily would take a more favorable stance toward the prime minister in exchange for the advancement of a bill that would force free daily Israel Hayom, seen as a pro-Netanyahu rival to Yedioth, to contract or disband.

In secretly recorded conversations between the two, Mozes can be heard telling Netanyahu he would be willing to fire Sarna, who sits on the Yedioth editorial board, as a gesture of goodwill.

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