Two former Israeli prime ministers met in the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court on Monday as the Netanyahu family’s libel case against Ehud Olmert began.
In attendance were Olmert and his lawyer, as well as Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu, their son Yair and their attorney.
In May, Netanyahu’s family filed a defamation lawsuit against Olmert for calling the then-prime minister, his wife Sara, and eldest son Yair “mentally ill” in interviews.
The suit seeks NIS 837,000 (some $257,000) in damages for Olmert’s “obsessive efforts to harm their good name in public, out of jealously and deep frustration.”
The session ended with the sides refusing to reach a compromise, despite being urged to do so by the judge. The case will thus continue in court. (At one stage in the proceedings, Channel 12 news reported, Olmert was apparently prepared to apologize for his comments, but then balked when it was suggested that the court would set a sum for “compensation,” refusing to countenance the use of that word. However, Olmert said later that the idea of him apologizing had not even been considered.)
Asked by Judge Amit Yariv what he had based his comments on, Olmert said on Monday: “I followed their actions, I heard recordings of the family, I conferred with experts and people who are associated with them and know them well. They described to me behaviors that are popularly seen as abnormal, crazy behavior.”
Netanyahu attorney Yossi Cohen said: “I don’t understand how a man can calmly write that Sara Netanyahu was in a treatment hostel. We don’t have an issue with Mr. Olmert, he’s been through difficult things. But a family is sitting here that in my eyes is one of Israel’s finest, and they have to hear that a former prime minister — who by the way does not have a clean past — calls them mentally ill?”
Olmert served time in prison after he was found guilty of corruption during his time as mayor of Jerusalem, prior to becoming prime minister. Benjamin Netanyahu is now also on trial for alleged corruption while serving as prime minister.
Cohen at one point said that “in another country Olmert would have been arrested” for his comments. To that the judge responded, “Thank God we’re not in that country.”
Olmert’s attorney Amir Titonovich asked for access to medical information on the family. The judge responded that the family’s medical records were not the issue, but rather whether Olmert had a basis for his comments when he made them.
Yariv also said it was “unfortunate that a painful subject such as mental illness is being taken and turned into a circus” in both sides’ submissions to the court.
He suggested that Olmert should “state for the record that his comments were an opinion, and that he does not know whether they are truth or not truth, and that he does not believe this is an issue the court should examine.”
If Olmert does insist that his comments were true, the judge warned, that will require a higher burden of proof from the defense, which could cause it difficulties.
He added that “both sides should have an interest in not having this turn into a circus. Taking into account the identity of the sides, no matter how much we insist that this is a legal matter, it will turn into a circus. I don’t think that is in either side’s interest.”
Yariv on Sunday reprimanded the Netanyahu family for seeking to skip the session or to have it conducted via videoconference. The family had cited the difficulty of security arrangements in their request to not come to court in person.
Yariv said he expected all three, as plaintiffs, to attend, and warned of consequences should they ignore his directive.
In two separate interviews last year, one with Channel 12 and another with the news site Democrat TV, Olmert leveled criticism at Netanyahu and said that “what is irreparable is the mental illness of the prime minister, his wife, and his son,” referring to Yair Netanyahu.
“They are in need of psychiatric treatment,” Olmert said.
Responding to the subsequent lawsuit, Olmert said at the time that he was “amused by the band of wackos.”
Olmert has argued in his defense that his opinion reflects the atmosphere in parts of the public, and also that the words he used were not slander.
He has also asked the court to allow him to have a psychiatrist of his choice evaluate the Netanyahus.
Neither Olmert nor Netanyahu is a stranger to court.
Olmert preceded Netanyahu as Israel’s prime minister, ending his term before being formally indicted on corruption charges. He was convicted of fraud in 2014 and served 16 months of a 27-month prison sentence.
Netanyahu is currently on trial in three separate corruption cases. He faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in Case 1000 and in Case 2000, and charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust in Case 4000.
Netanyahu denies all allegations against him, and says the charges were fabricated by a biased police force and state prosecution service, overseen by a weak attorney general, in league with political opponents and the media.