Cracking Sarna, the Netanyahus' nemesis

Igal Sarna, the first journalist in Israel sued by the prime minister for libel following a Facebook post, talks to 'The Jerusalem Post' about his experiences.

July 2, 2017 12:35
Igal Sarna

Igal Sarna. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Journalist Igal Sarna was very reluctant to agree to an interview, saying he had been manipulated into talking to the press before, and that it didn’t turn out well for him.

For the past year, he faced a libel suit waged against him by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara, whose recent conclusion was the trigger for this interview. The court ruled that Sarna had to pay damages for libel of NIS 100,000 to the Netanyahus for posting on Facebook that Sara Netanyahu ordered the prime minister’s entourage to stop on Route 1 and change cars because of a quarrel.

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Fortunately for Sarna, he has many supporters, who in less than 24 hours raised the money through a crowd-funding campaign.

We met at a chic cafe. Sarna pointed at a table a few meters away from us. “This is where the saga started,” he began. The cafe is right around the corner from his apartment, and the waiters know him by his first name. As he sat, he took out a recording device and admitted he had never before recorded himself being interviewed. The “saga” he referred to had taken a toll on him, leaving him with a bitter taste and less trust for people.

It began one night a year ago with a story Sarna heard from a childhood friend, an artist whose name he is unwilling to disclose. The man related an account he had allegedly heard from a person in the prime minister’s entourage.

According to the story Sarna later wrote on Facebook and that was never proven to be true, the prime minister’s convoy was making its way late one night from Jerusalem to Caesarea, when it stopped abruptly near Sha’ar Hagai, where, according to the story, Netanyahu was kicked out of the car by his wife, something that delayed the convoy on its way.

According to Sarna, the source on the convoy expressed frustration to the unnamed artist (Sarna’s friend): “This is the man that we are protecting? We are doing our work professionally, and this woman creates a fuss?” Sarna made several attempts to confirm the story, but to no avail. Even though he couldn’t find satisfying evidence, he decided to narrate what he had learned in a rather cryptic Facebook post: “The prime minister’s motorcade – four black cars – stopped, with more and more bodyguards appearing… and a no-longer-young man was thrown out on Route 1, with screaming in the background, because a woman didn’t want him to be in the car with her, and by doing so mocked the security personnel and the entire country.”

Sarna’s post went viral, drew headlines, sparked Facebook discussions and caught the attention of the Netanyahus, who last year filed the libel suit. Three weeks ago, Sarna lost the case because he couldn’t back up his story with facts.

The ruling awarded NIS 60,000 to Benjamin Netanyahu, NIS 40,000 to Sara, and NIS 15,000 to cover trial expenses.

Following his defeat, Sarna faced harsh criticism not only from Netanyahu supporters, but also from many fellow journalists, who argued he had significantly damaged the reputation of Israeli journalism by publishing an unconfirmed story.

Sarna was born in Tel Aviv in 1952. Both his parents immigrated to Mandatory Palestine before the Holocaust and had him rather late in their lives. Sarna always had a passion for journalism and a knack for writing. He describes his writing as likable, light and easily consumed.

He has authored more than 10 books of non-fiction, one of which has been translated into English and published by Random House in the US under the title A Man Falls Into a Puddle. His journalistic career of more than 35 years includes both feature articles and opinion pieces.

“I’m a fierce opponent of Netanyahu,” Sarna admits early on in the interview. “My name came up in one of the secret conversations between my publisher and Netanyahu when they tried to achieve a cease-fire.”

Sarna was referring to the conversations between newspaper publisher Arnon “Noni” Mozes, who owns Ynet and Yediot Aharonot, and Netanyahu. The recording of their talks was exposed in January 2017 and is currently under investigation by the police.

“My name came up. Netanyahu asked Noni to get rid of me. My publisher [Mozes] told Bibi, ‘I would also want to get rid of him. But it’s complicated.”

Why do you think that Netanyahu wanted you out?

“I’m well known as an opponent of the Netanyahu family. They didn’t like me and I’m not part of their circles. I also wrote harshly against [former prime minister imprisoned for corruption Ehud] Olmert and [Defense Minister Avigdor] Liberman, but the Netanyahus are more sensitive.

“Perhaps Sara became upset with me. I was even more brutal on Facebook. I once wrote that Netanyahu is a mushroom that grew out of [assassinated prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin’s blood, since Netanyahu was involved in inciting against him. I know that, for more than two years, they were after me.”

But what is the big deal with the story, even if it did happen exactly the way you described it? Isn’t this just a family matter?

“It’s not a convoy that should stop unexpectedly. It’s not a simple matter when you deal with these levels of security. They called the Shin Bet [Israel Security Agency], another indication that people in the bureau knew about it in real time.”

Who asked the convoy to stop?

“I don’t know. I’m not well versed in all the details. I couldn’t get to the person who was present there. There are a few versions.

“There are many stories that correspond with this one. Meni Naftali [the former housekeeper at the Prime Minister’s Residence] said that she would stop the convoy from leaving the official residence even if the roads were already blocked, just because she wanted him to rearrange eggs in a basket.

“Former Mossad director [the late] Meir Dagan said on record that she had once sat with them in a classified intelligence briefing and he had asked Netanyahu to ask her to leave, and Netanyahu said, ‘it’s fine.’ Dagan insisted, and in the end he was the one to leave.”

If this is true, how come no one follows up on these allegations against Mrs. Netanyahu? Most of what we hear sounds more like gossip than reliable journalism.

“We do hear about it. Channel 2’s prominent investigative journalist Ilana Dayan had dedicated a program to this topic. Meni Naftali, who worked for the couple for a long time, spoke at length on the topic. Many more employees have spoken up about how impossible she is, that she is the one taking control of decisions.”

“Journalist Ben Caspit wrote about the topic. Prof. Uzi Arad, who was the prime minister’s political adviser, expressed the absurdity that goes on there.

There are many testimonies of this. A woman who escorted her on a trip to Moscow sent her a letter complaining about her behavior.

“I reached a large number of people who worked for them who described this pattern and the only conclusion is that she is the one making the calls between the two of them.”

So why hasn’t this exploded before?

“Many people are silenced or are too afraid to speak up. Still, these things are being said and don’t always have an effect. There is a standing case against her in the State Attorney’s Office and nothing has been done about it for a very long time.”

Were you surprised or intimidated when you received the notice about the lawsuit?

“No. During my entire professional career I was only sued once. I wrote about a murder that took place more than 40 years prior to the article, and the murderer had already been released, so I wasn’t supposed to mention his name in the piece, so he could readjust to society.

I lost that case.

“I try to be accurate. I’m a social journalist and I find myself in problematic places, but so far my career went rather peacefully in this regard. When I received the warning I approached attorney Avigdor Feldman, later also lawyer Lior Epstein, to represent me. Both are stellar lawyers.

“I had great lawyers, but I stood alone against an empire of sorts. Netanyahu is backed by people of means and by powerful organizations. It’s crazy. I felt the power discrepancy at its fullest – the weak against the strong.”

Did you try to resolve this outside the court?

“There was such an attempt. We were to meet in Herzliya with a mediator. He didn’t come. In fact, they wanted it all to be managed only by the lawyers, but we demanded that at least [Sara] show up. They wanted an apology and considerable compensation.

“I was willing to say that I wasn’t accurate in my post. They didn’t want to hear about it. They felt they had hit a gold mine. All the key witnesses work for the prime minister. Not only that, but the witnesses I could bring to court are his subordinates, and are also protected since they carry security clearance.

“I did speak with people who knew a thing or two about this story, but they weren’t willing to testify.

“One day, an Israeli businessman approached me and told me that he had heard the story I told firsthand from someone who was there. I tried to get [the firsthand witness] to testify, but she wasn’t willing to hear about me. I could have forced some people into testifying in court, but decided against it.”

How was it to confront the prime minister in court?

“The two hours he spent in Courtroom 6 – the same courtroom where he will need to show up if the standing allegations against him lead to an investigation – were my victory. He didn’t want to come to the hearing. The judge had to twist his arm.

“He entered the court late so no one could take his photo inside the courtroom or in the witness stand.

It was weird to see him. He didn’t look so well. His color was off, pale, his hair dyed strangely. He repeated aloud things I said in a mocking voice as if he were a schoolboy.

“Suddenly, this man who tries not to appear as an ordinary person was just a human being. He was questioned by my lawyer and whenever he went off on a tangent in his story he was forced to speak to the point.

“There was a moment when my lawyer, Feldman, asked him if he always writes the truth on Facebook.

His answer was, “I try.” Feldman asked Netanyahu about a case where the police killed a person and Netanyahu wrote on Facebook that the person was a terrorist – something that was strongly disproved and admitted by the police.

“It’s a person [Netanyahu] who wrote [during the previous election] that ‘The Arabs are rushing to the polling stations’ [later, Netanyahu apologized for this post]. It’s a person that uses his Facebook in the most ugly manner.”

Many journalists said you damaged their credibility when you put your name on a shaky story. Were you offended they attacked you?

“It’s true that many journalists say I betrayed my mission and that I gave Netanyahu a gift. There are journalists who cannot show solidarity. I was hurt.

When someone stabs you in the back it stings.

“On the other hand, this year many people came to me on the street to shake my hand. Not people who think like me, but who can appreciate a person who stands on his own. In a country of ball-less people, having one ball is considered bravery.”

Do you think these attacks against the prime minister’s wife have a sexist element?

“I mostly deal with him, not her. No one ever took interest in Nava Barak or Aliza Olmert. But her behavior has an effect on the government and the country. She is not an elected official and shouldn’t affect the lives of the people who didn’t elect her and damage decision making in the country.”

Does the public support your side?

“No. But I belong to a sizable minority that is passionate about changing things. We want to bring back democracy – to have the rule of law here.”

Do you truly think this country was more democratic 50 years ago?

“It started with a democratic infrastructure. Prime minister Levi Eshkol started giving citizenship to Arabs [almost 20 years after 1948], then came the Six Day War. But still, people could demonstrate outside the homes of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin.

“Begin respected democracy. Even Ehud Olmert allowed the wheels of justice to turn and the state attorney sent him to jail. Today, the attorney-general isn’t doing his job. The police commissioner isn’t doing his job.”

What do you mean?

“The trio of police commissioner, attorney-general and state prosecutor is slowing down and dissolving the investigations against him. The attorneygeneral can make any standing charge disappear by bureaucratic means.

“Look at the investigation against Interior Minister Arye Deri. It is already in an advanced stage. He was questioned at the same time as his wife, so they wouldn’t be able to coordinate versions.

Time is a crucial factor when it comes to criminal investigations. But the prime minister benefits from unethical double standards and privileges, and his investigation isn’t going anywhere.”

Do you think that this trend is specific to Israel or is it widespread?

“[Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan also used to sue journalists. Now he doesn’t need to anymore. It’s nuts that a prime minister would use this technique to silence and intimidate journalists. What happened to me shows a miserable trend in limiting the freedom of speech.

“It’s taboo to write about the occupied territories or about Arabs. The very rich are using libel cases to threaten anyone they dislike. The newspapers are weakened. Israel Hayom [owned by Netanyahu supporter Sheldon Adelson] is the biggest newspaper in Israel today – and it’s not a real newspaper.”

Looking forward, Sarna is preparing to appeal the ruling. He believes that there is still more he could say to make his case. In the meantime, the story has become a landmark in the history of Israeli media.

Never before has a prime minister taken a journalist to court for a Facebook post, even though many have told stories that closely resemble the one Sarna related. Comedian Lior Schleien recently commented that Netanyahu’s choice to sue Sarna shows he was confident of his ability to show that the story was untrue. On the other hand, it also reveals that he is not as confident

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