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The Netanyahu-Olmert Faceoff Is Not Over
In better days, Ehud Olmert, left, shakes hands with Binyamin Netanyahu during a session of the Knesset on March 30, 2009 in Jerusalem. (Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)

The Netanyahu-Olmert Faceoff Is Not Over

A judge failed to convince the two former Israeli prime ministers to settle the lawsuit filed by Netanyahu after Olmert called him and members of his family ‘mentally ill’

Two former prime ministers of Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Olmert, faced off against each other in a Tel Aviv court on Monday. Netanyahu filed a lawsuit against Olmert for calling him, and other members of his family, “mentally ill” in interviews with the media. The case will continue, after the preliminary hearing ended without a settlement and with the judge suggesting that the two former prime ministers “not turn this matter into a circus.”

It all started early last year when Olmert in several media interviews commented about Netanyahu – who was then the sitting prime minister, his wife Sara, and his oldest son, Yair.

In an interview with the Hebrew-language Democrat TV, Olmert said: “What can’t be fixed is the mental illness of the prime minister and his wife and son,” and that “under regular circumstances, any psychiatrist with a healthy conscience would tell you that they need to be hospitalized. They are sick people.”

Olmert also made similar statements in a later interview with Israel’s Channel 12 despite Netanyahu’s warning that he would file a lawsuit.

In response, in May 2021, Netanyahu filed a lawsuit against Ehud Olmert for defamation, seeking 837,000 shekels or about $268,000 in damages. Netanyahu claimed in the lawsuit that Olmert had made “obsessive efforts to damage their name in public, out of jealousy and deep frustration.”

In October 2021, an appearance in the Tel Aviv Magistrates’ Court was scheduled to deal with the lawsuit. Despite the long-ago scheduled date, Netanyahu on Sunday requested either to arrive an hour late or to attend court via Zoom, claiming that it would be difficult to make security arrangements and expressing concern about the new wave of the coronavirus. The request was denied by the judge assigned to the case, Amit Yariv, who threatened the three plaintiffs with consequences if they did not show up on time.

Olmert claimed as part of his defense argument that what he said in the interviews echoes a popular opinion among Israeli citizens, and also among world leaders. Amir Titonovich, Olmert’s attorney, added that his client’s statements fall within the framework of freedom of political expression.

When former prime ministers attack each other and call each other ‘crazy,’ it doesn’t look very good

Olmert is refusing to call his statements “opinion,” which Haaretz newspaper columnist Amir Oren told The Media Line was a “lighter form of expression.” Olmert insists that they are factual because the Netanyahu family has had psychological counseling.

Yossi Cohen, the Netanyahu family lawyer, argued in court that he is representing one of the “finest” families in Israel and that it is a family which does not deserve to be called mentally ill, especially not by someone with a “dirty past,” referring to Olmert’s conviction in 2014 on corruption charges stemming when he served as mayor of Jerusalem, for which he spent 16 months in jail.

Cohen added: “If this would happen in another country, Olmert would have already been arrested.” The judge responded: “Thank God we’re not in that country.”

Michael Partem, an attorney in private practice in Jerusalem, told The Media Line: “When former prime ministers attack each other and call each other ‘crazy,’ it doesn’t look very good.” On the other hand, he said, “the fact that one prime minister can criticize another prime minister is certainly a [better] way to look at it.”

Monday’s court session concluded with the judge trying to convince the sides to arrive at a compromise, asking Olmert to state that the comments he made were an expression of his personal opinion, that he does not know whether they are true or not, and that he does not think that the court should rule in the matter.

The judge also called on both sides to “not turn this matter into a circus.” Yariv argued that the attention that it has drawn is not good for any of the parties involved. “The magistrate tried to have them settle this out of court, but both parties refused and the case will go on,” Oren said.

Partem explained that awards in libel lawsuits are rarely paid out to the person filing the complaint and that “it is counterproductive.” He added that “in this case more so. It is very easy to criticize a public official and have that speech be protected.”

Partem also argued that this “is a tough case to win and all the accusations will be very public and it can take months, if not years to come to a conclusion if the matter is not settled outside of court.”

Meanwhile, Oren suggests that there is not any goodwill for a settlement on the part of any of the parties.

Oren says that it will be difficult for the case to come to a legal conclusion if the lawsuit continues. “If they have to present evidence, Olmert will have to present documentation that is quite difficult to get because patients have rights,” he said.

“Ironically enough, even if the truth is that someone has been hospitalized in a mental institution, it is legally secret and the doctors cannot testify about it,” he added.

Politicians try to throw mud at each other, but I can’t think of a libel case like this where the defendant is ready to prove that the former prime minister is clinically insane

Partem says that one possible motive for Netanyahu to continue to pursue the lawsuit is the fact that he is currently on trial in a Jerusalem court in three corruption cases.

“It seems so disconnected from other issues, he is on trial for three files and those are important, but to try to determine if someone is crazy or not … maybe is a diversionary tactic,” he said. “Maybe the idea is to keep attention away from serious issues.”

Oren suggests it could be motivated by revenge, perhaps to strike back at one of his critics. “They were political rivals,” he said, “so there’s a lot of bad blood between them.”

Partem says that this is the first time that a former Israeli politician has gone after another in such a way. “Politicians try to throw mud at each other, but I can’t think of a libel case like this where the defendant is ready to prove that the former prime minister is clinically insane,” he said.

He cited examples of strife among politicians, such as when Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and Rafi, the center-left political party that he founded in 1965, split from the Labor party, as well as the political feud between Labor leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. “But something like this is a new low,” he said.

 

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