Netanyahu, Olmert refuse court offer to settle defamation trial

Judge warns sides they are diving into a ‘circus’

 Netanyahu with his wife at his defamation trial January 10, 2022. (photo credit: DANA KOPEL)
Netanyahu with his wife at his defamation trial January 10, 2022.
(photo credit: DANA KOPEL)

The defamation trial of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his family against former prime minister Ehud Olmert opened on Monday before the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court, including a NIS 837,000 demand for alleged damages from statements against the Netanyahus in two April 2021 interviews.

Despite attempts by the court to reach a settlement that would avoid the need for a trial and some initial flexibility by both sides, the former prime ministers eventually dug in their heels for the long haul of what promises to be a memorable legal conflagration.
The court warned them that they were diving into a “circus” that would help neither side.Since there was no settlement, the Netanyahus must respond by January 23 to Olmert’s motion to force them to reveal their private psychiatric information and to submit to psychiatric testing.
Olmert will then get to file a counter-response by February 2, following which the court will set a witness schedule.Olmert’s first interview was with Democrat TV on April 12, 2021. The second was with the Ophira and Berkowitz TV program on April 21, 2021.
During the first interview, Olmert said the Netanyahu family was “mentally ill.” Within days, the Netanyahus had threatened to sue Olmert for NIS 1 million if he did not retract his statement.
 Former prime minister Ehud Olmert also appears at the defamation trial January 10, 2022. (credit: DANA KOPEL) Former prime minister Ehud Olmert also appears at the defamation trial January 10, 2022. (credit: DANA KOPEL)
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 he might be losing a million shekels.
Olmert’s initial comment came during an interview with Democrat TV, in which he heavily criticized the previous government headed by Netanyahu and its conduct during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We had NIS 100 billion to hand out as unpaid leave grants... if we had invested 10% of that in the public health system in the past two or three years, we would be in a completely different situation,” he said.
Olmert also expressed optimism in establishing a government without Netanyahu. “The Likud is losing its power,” he said, expressing hope that New Hope head Gideon Sa’ar would keep his word and not support any coalition with Netanyahu.
However, Olmert’s positive approach did not extend to Netanyahu himself, with Olmert expressing some controversial comments about Netanyahu and his family.
“What can’t be fixed is the mental illness of the prime minister and his wife and son,” Olmert said.“Under regular circumstances, any psychiatrist with a healthy conscience... would tell you that they need to be hospitalized. They are sick people,” he added.
Netanyahu family lawyer Yossi Cohen responded to Olmert at the time, saying: “It is hard to overstate the level of wickedness, maliciousness, and despicableness in your comments that include premeditated and serious slander meant to humiliate and scorn my clients while making them a cause for ridicule and contempt in the eyes of the public and to damage their positions.”
Olmert had openly criticized Netanyahu and his government for years, going as far as saying that Netanyahu was responsible for destroying Israeli democracy.
Leading into Monday’s hearing, the Netanyahus tried to use the Omicron outbreak to attend only by video or to start the hearing late. But Judge Amit Yariv said it was disrespectful to the court for the Netanyahus to make such requests, especially only 24 hours before the hearing. He threatened to penalize them if they did not attend on time.
Yariv warned Olmert’s lawyer Amir Titonovich that they could not claim both the defense of “Olmert spoke the truth” and that Olmert was giving a non-fact-based opinion commentary statement.
The judge expressed skepticism that Olmert could prove that Netanyahu was “mentally ill” to the standard required by the law to make a defense. He seemed to suggest that they rely on the opinion defense.
Both Titonovich and Olmert himself said they wanted both defenses. Olmert said he had heard recordings of Netanyahu family members providing evidence that Netanyahu and his immediate family were “crazy.” Still, the court continued to press that they may have no evidence, especially if the court does not allow them to request new psychiatric evidence about the Netanyahus. The court hinted it might reject Olmert’s request because the legal issue was whether Olmert, at the time, had a basis to make the argument about Netanyahu’s mental health.
On the flipside, Yariv shot down Netanyahu’s lawyer, Cohen, who said, “In other countries, Olmert would have been arrested.” Responding, Yariv said, “Thank God we are not in such a country.”
There were also comical points during the proceedings, including Netanyahu the father intercepting and blocking the passing of a note that his son Yair had wanted to pass to Cohen, as well as the former prime minister restraining Sara from multiple attempts to speak to the lawyer or address the court.
Olmert appeared to be mostly sending text messages, though he did engage the court a few times. At one point, he and his lawyer offered to settle on the basis of acknowledging that his attack on the Netanyahus was on the basis of how they were handling their public responsibilities and not based on any medical expertise. When the Netanyahus demanded that Olmert also apologize or leave open the possibility that the court would fine him, he said, “There is no way.”
Jerusalem Post Staff contributed to this report.