Netanyahu vs. Olmert: A Lurid Libel Case Grips Israel

TEL AVIV — Benjamin Netanyahu, who left office a year ago, his wife, Sara, and their eldest son, Yair, are suing his predecessor as Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert, for libel after his description of them as “mentally ill” and in need of psychiatric treatment.

Mr. Olmert, for his part, is unapologetic about the aspersions he cast on the Netanyahu family in two interviews around the time of a bitter and inconclusive election in the spring of 2021.

Now the two former prime ministers — ardent political foes — are fighting it out in a lurid defamation trial that some liken to a soap opera.

On Monday, Israelis were left to parse the fallout a day after the main protagonists and other Israeli public figures took the witness stand for more than 13 hours of testimony rife with bickering, sniping and accusations of a variety of disorders afflicting the Netanyahus.

In ordinary times, Sunday’s hearing in the Tel Aviv Magistrates’ Court might have been dismissed as a sometimes grotesque sign of the depths to which Israeli political discourse can sink.

But the libel case is playing out just as the country’s current governing coalition, a fragile alliance of eight ideologically disparate parties led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, is teetering on the brink of collapse — and Mr. Netanyahu appears close to engineering a possible comeback.

Another member of Mr. Bennett’s coalition quit on Monday, leaving the government in control of only 59 seats in the 120-seat Parliament and bringing the prospect of another election, the fifth in under four years, ever closer.

“It was a reality show,” Gadi Wolfsfeld, a professor of political communications at Reichman University in Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv, said of the trial. “Or worse, a soap opera. It’s sad.”

Still, he said, the courtroom drama was unlikely to have much effect on the political landscape.

“Let’s remember, there are very few people who don’t already have a firm opinion about Bibi,” he said, referring to Mr. Netanyahu by his nickname. “So for the vast majority of the population, it won’t make a bit of difference.”

Neither Mr. Olmert nor Mr. Netanyahu is a stranger to court. Mr. Netanyahu, who holds the record as Israel’s longest serving prime minister after a total of 15 years in office, is currently on trial in the Jerusalem District Court for corruption. Mr. Olmert, in office from 2006 to 2009, was convicted in 2014 of taking a bribe while he was mayor of Jerusalem and served 16 months in prison.

The latest courtroom spectacle resurfaced alarming allegations over the pressures Mr. Netanyahu faced within his family and his inability to withstand them, offered this time under oath by some of his closest former advisers.

As the day of testimony progressed, the wild rumors and reports of disturbing goings-on that accompanied Mr. Netanyahu’s long tenure were given an airing as Mr. Olmert’s lawyer and witnesses for the defense bandied about references to eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive behavior, uncontrolled tantrums, narcissism and paranoia in the Netanyahu household.

“The testimony heard in court Sunday was nauseating and horrifying, reviving grim memories of what we got rid of exactly one year ago,” Yossi Verter, a political columnist, wrote in Monday’s left-wing Haaretz newspaper.

But Mr. Verter, like other analysts, said none of it was likely to put off Mr. Netanyahu’s die-hard allies and supporters and could even benefit him, as he plays the role of a victim of persecution.

One political ally of Mr. Netanyahu’s, Bezalel Smotrich, a far-right lawmaker, wrote in a Twitter post that he was “squirming in disgust” at the “satanic baseness” of the efforts to defame the Netanyahu family.

The Netanyahus are suing Mr. Olmert for more than $250,000 in damages because, they said, his characterization of them as mentally ill suggested he was privy, as a former prime minister, to some hidden clinical diagnosis that did not exist and that he had crossed a red line.

Ehud Olmert, a former prime minister of Israel, in New York in 2020. Mr. Olmert is being sued for libel by Mr. Netanyahu, his successor in office.Credit…Yana Paskova/Reuters

Mr. Olmert’s lawyer, Amir Tytunovich, said in an interview that his client’s main lines of defense were that he was expressing an opinion at a stormy time in Israeli politics, speaking “out of emotion and concern for the future of the country,” and that Mr. Olmert was telling the truth, though he was obviously not offering a professional clinical diagnosis.

“This is my opinion and I won’t change it,” Mr. Olmert said in a brief interview with The New York Times outside the courtroom.

Mr. Netanyahu was the first to take the stand on Sunday, often turning around to play to the audience, mostly made up of the Hebrew news media’s legal reporters.

“I have no psychiatric history, and the burden of proof is on you, not me!” he declared as Mr. Olmert sat across from him in the small, crowded courtroom.

Sara Netanyahu, a certified psychologist, categorically denied reports that she had been hospitalized in a sanitarium in Vienna last year, insisting that was “a lie from start to finish.”

She asserted that an audio tape of her screaming at a publicist over the phone in 2009 had been “cooked” and “manipulated.” And when Mr. Tytunovich, Mr. Olmert’s lawyer, suggested that she was partial to vodka, she retorted that she did not drink alcohol but that a healthy stock of it had been left in the prime minister’s residence by the previous tenant, Mr. Olmert.

Yair Netanyahu, the couple’s elder son, was confronted with a slew of his own social media posts in which he ascribed mental illness to other public figures. Explaining why he had written that a former defense minister and Netanyahu rival, Moshe Yaalon, should be in a psychiatric institution, he said, “I wanted to make fun of his obsession over my father.”

Tamar Almog, the legal commentator for Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, described the proceedings as “half circus, half preschool.” But Uzi Arad, a witness for the defense who served as Mr. Netanyahu’s national security adviser and close confidante before a sharp falling out, said the dysfunction he had witnessed in the Netanyahu household “exacted a price from the country.”

He described one incident when Mr. Netanyahu left unprepared for a trip to Washington and could not be briefed on the plane because he insisted on sitting with Sara the whole way, preventing Mr. Arad from sharing classified information. According to Mr. Arad, the lapse led to a huge blowup in Mr. Netanyahu’s meeting with Robert M. Gates, the U.S. secretary of defense at the time, prompting the Pentagon to cut off ties with Israel for two months.

Nir Hefetz, a former spokesman for Mr. Netanyahu who has turned state witness in his corruption trial, told the court of constant interference by Ms. Netanyahu and her son in national decision-making. He related that Yair once burst into a meeting his father was holding with other officials, got down on all fours and wagged his tongue, berating his father in crude terms for sucking up to those present.

“I should apologize after today?” Mr. Olmert said outside the courtroom.

In a Facebook post on Monday, Mr. Netanyahu wrote that Mr. Olmert “brought former employees who would give false testimony and slander my family with a baseless blood libel.”

The lawyers for the sides must now sum up their arguments before the judge reaches a verdict, the timing for which is not yet scheduled.

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