Netanyahu wins defamation lawsuit against Ehud Olmert on 1 of 2 counts

Incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu sued former prime minister Ehud Olmert for saying that the Netanyahu family is crazy.

Incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert speak on the plenum floor at the start of the swearing-in ceremony for Netanyahu's new government at parliament in Jerusalem March 31, 2009 (photo credit: DAVID SILVERMAN / REUTERS)
Incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert speak on the plenum floor at the start of the swearing-in ceremony for Netanyahu's new government at parliament in Jerusalem March 31, 2009
(photo credit: DAVID SILVERMAN / REUTERS)

Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu won his defamation lawsuit against former prime minister Ehud Olmert in one of two counts on Monday, according to the ruling by Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court Deputy President Amit Yariv.

Yariv found that Olmert’s claim that essentially said the Netanyahus are crazy was too close to sounding like he was describing a medical fact, whereas he had no clear basis for attacking the Netanyahus in this way, other than hearsay.

The court fined Olmert NIS 20,000 regarding Netanyahu himself, NIS 35,000 regarding his wife, Sara, and NIS 7,500 regarding Yair, with the low amount being connected to his attacking others as being crazy. Further, Yariv granted NIS 35,000 against Olmert and in favor of Netanyahu for court and legal costs.

The court said the law balances free speech, which is the free market of ideas, versus an individual’s right to protect their reputation.

Free speech also protects a person’s ability to direct criticism on public figures, including on issues in controversy, Yariv said.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu heading to the courtroom for the Netanyahu's defamation case against former prime minister Ehud Olmert.  (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu heading to the courtroom for the Netanyahu's defamation case against former prime minister Ehud Olmert. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)

But all people also have a right to their reputation being defended since damage to a person’s reputation can harm them socially and economically, he said.

Even if a comment is defamatory, a defamation lawsuit would be rejected if the statement can be found to be true, or if a defendant proved they just gave their personal opinion, Yariv wrote.

The court found that it was problematic for Olmert, in one of his two statements, to use the idea that members of the Netanyahu family were hospitalized for emotional difficulties to frame them as mentally unstable.

Yariv said this could lead to harm to a broad slice of the population, since many people who are generally stable can sometimes have temporary mental issues.

Moreover, the court said Olmert did not bring sufficient evidence to prove the truth of his claim against the Netanyahus even if he had hearsay-type statements in support.

Yariv was especially disturbed by the manner in which Olmert used his phraseology, saying the Netanyahus were mentally unfit, which he said sounded more like a professional view, even if Olmert is not an expert in mental fitness.

Nevertheless, the court kept the damages low, finding that Olmert was expressing political opinions against the Netanyahus and was not trying to damage them as individuals.

The court said family members of a public figure, however, usually deserve higher damages than the public figure.

At the same time, the court said Olmert demonstrated that Yair Netanyahu had accused many public figures of being crazy.

The maximum amount that the court could have fined Olmert would have been NIS 75,000 per person, or NIS 225,000.

The relatively low amount of damages was a nod toward Olmert regarding the Netanyahus being public figures, his attack on them being ideological, and regarding Yair Netanyahu as being someone who aggressively attacks others on Twitter.

Based on this, there were hints from Olmert’s lawyer that he would not appeal.

Meanwhile, according to Yossi Cohen, Netanyahu’s lawyer, “It’s good to know that even in an insane and crazy world in which we’re used to it being permitted to spread any offensive lie against Prime Minister Netanyahu, his wife and his family, today, clear and exact limits were established that put an end to Olmert’s evil lie.”

“It’s good to know that even in an insane and crazy world in which we’re used to it being permitted to spread any offensive lie against Prime Minister Netanyahu, his wife and his family, today, clear and exact limits were established that put an end to Olmert’s evil lie.”

Yossi Cohen

The trial began in January

In June, Netanyahu said in dramatic testimony: “I have no psychiatric history” – a thundering rejection of allegations by Olmert that he and his family have had mental illnesses.

Over the course of that hearing, Netanyahu, his wife and son all fought back voraciously against a series of reports and allegations that Amir Tytunovich, Olmert’s lawyer, directed at them.

At some point, Tytunovich played an interview with former prime minister Ariel Sharon saying Netanyahu had always looked like he was bordering on falling apart under pressure and was liable to sudden bouts of panic.

He then played an interview with Netanyahu’s long-time lawyer Jacob Weinroth, saying Netanyahu was unstable and that sometimes Weinroth served him as both lawyer and psychologist.

Netanyahu said Weinroth had apologized to him for the interview he gave and said he had been fooled into saying things in a way that he did not intend – though the former prime minister could not explain why Weinroth did not publish a public retraction.

At the time, Netanyahu and his wife were both trying to refute reports that she had been hospitalized for mental issues in Austria in March 2020.

A strange twist happened when Sara Netanyahu said she had never heard of the report before the current defamation case, whereas Tytunovich showed that family spokesman Ofer Golan had responded to the report in real time, even if dismissively.

The court also heard recordings of Sara Netanyahu screaming hysterically at people, to which she said someone had edited the recordings somehow to make her sound crazy.

Further, Tytunovich read from an Israeli Labor Court ruling that said Sara had emotionally abused an employee in the Prime Minister’s Residence and then lied about it in court.

Sara could not contain herself and essentially said the particular judge had been manipulated into believing a false story put together to harm her and her husband’s image.

Yair Netanyahu and his parents also denied allegations that he had mental issues, including sometimes going on hunger strikes.

The trial opened on January 10 and included NIS 837,000 of alleged damages for statements against the Netanyahus’ mental health in two April 2021 interviews.

One of Olmert’s interviews was on April 12, 2021, to Democrat TV, and the second interview was on April 21, 2021, on the Ophira and Berkowitz TV program.

During the first interview, Olmert called the Netanyahu family “mentally ill” and said they needed to be forcibly committed to a psychiatric ward.

Within days, the Netanyahus threatened to sue Olmert for NIS 1 million if he did not retract his statement.

In contrast, during the second interview, Olmert doubled down on his characterization of the Netanyahu family, explicitly refused to retract and laughed when one of his interviewers warned him that he might be losing NIS 1m.