‘Unjustified’ stigma: Netanyahu wins defamation lawsuit against Olmert

The former prime minister had called the whole Netanyahu family mentally ill but failed to prove it in court.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

A Tel Aviv court ruled Monday that former prime minister Ehud Olmert had defamed incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his family by calling them mentally ill in one of two interviews last year when Netanyahu was leader of the Opposition.

Judge Amit Yariv found that Olmert had crossed the legal line when he told the DemocraTV news site in April 2021 that “what is irreparable is the mental illness of the prime minister, his wife, and his son,” referring to Sarah and Yair Netanyahu.

“Under normal conditions, any psychiatrist who has a conscience, and I am ready to introduce you to quite a few of them, who would say that a hospitalization order should be issued for both him and his son…. They are all sick people,” he added.

Olmert’s statement came in reaction to a question regarding his opinion on whether parts of government that had allegedly been damaged under Netanyahu’s tenure could be restored.

Yariv determined that with words, “Olmert made it clear that the ‘restoration of the state’ cannot be done as long as the plaintiffs are not hospitalized.” For this reason, “attributing danger to the plaintiffs is especially severe,” he wrote in his verdict.

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Yariv also pointed at the “unjustified” stigma that mental illness still carries in society, saying, “It cannot be ignored that here and now in Israel, calling a person mentally ill can humiliate a person in peoples’ eyes.”

Yariv dismissed Olmert’s efforts to show that he had been speaking the truth because he could not present a physician’s medical opinion on the Netanyahus’ mental state. In previous legal rounds, Olmert had tried, and failed, to get any past psychiatric records of the family or to have the court order them to undergo psychiatric evaluation for this case.

He instead tried to sway the court by showing what others said about Netanyahu, including airing interviews in which late prime minister Ariel Sharon said that Netanyahu was liable to sudden bouts of panic and a Netanyahu lawyer had said he was unstable.

Regarding Sarah, he brought up reports that she had spent time in March 2020 in an Austrian mental hospital and played recordings of her screaming at people.

But the judge rejected Olmert’s argument that he had thus been “expressing an opinion in good faith.” As he stated in his ruling, “Associating a certain behavior with this or that disease is a medical matter, and the court cannot determine this.”

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However, the amount of damages awarded was far less than what the Netanyahus had sought.

While the family had publicly demanded NIS 837,000, Yariv ordered Olmert to pay NIS 20,000 for defaming Netanyahu, NIS 35,000 for defaming Sarah, and NIS 7,500 for defaming Yair.

The judge noted that although, as the son of a political figure Yair “did not choose the public eye” – and, therefore, theoretically his compensation should be the highest – it was reduced due to the public records of Yair verbally assaulting those whom he felt attacked his father unfairly in the political arena, including by calling them mentally ill.

This showed the court “the possibility that Yair does not see these statements as difficult statements, or another possibility – in a political debate there is no prohibition to use such words.”

As to the sum Netanyahu himself was awarded, the judge said that most of Olmert’s denunciations came under the rubric of political criticism, and this “justifies a more lenient approach when ruling on compensation, because of the fear of a chilling effect on the freedom of political expression.”

Olmert was also ordered to pay NIS 35,000 in court costs and legal fees.