Two former Israeli prime ministers have appeared in the Tel Aviv magistrate’s court as Binyamin Netanyahu; his wife, Sara; and their eldest son, Yair, launched a defamation suit against Ehud Olmert after he refused to withdraw comments describing the Netanyahu family as “mentally ill”.
In Monday’s preliminary hearing the judge urged the parties to reach a compromise to avoid a trial, in a case in which the Netanyahus are seeking 837,000 shekels (€235,000) in damages. “It is unfortunate that a painful subject such as mental illness is being taken and turned into a circus,” said Judge Amit Yariv.
But the sides failed to agree on the wording of a compromise and the trial is due to proceed. According to Israeli media reports, Mr Olmert was ready to offer an apology but refused to pay compensation.
Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert sits in the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court. Photograph: Avshalom Sassoni/Pool/AFP via Getty
“ A family sits here that I think is one of the most magnificent families in Israel, and they have to hear a former prime minister – whose past is not clean by the way – call them mentally ill?” he said. “In other countries, Olmert would have been arrested.”
Responding, the judge said, “Thank God we are not in such a country.”
Mr Olmert told the court that what he said was not libellous because it was true, and also that he was clearly expressing an opinion. He explained that he had followed the Netanyahus’ expressions and their actions as a justification for his claim.
“I also listened to the recordings of the family members. I consulted with experts and their associates about behaviours that definitely went into the definition of what is popularly called crazy and abnormal behaviour,” he added.
Neither former prime minister is a stranger to the courtroom. Mr Olmert served a prison sentence after he was found guilty of corruption during his time as mayor of Jerusalem, prior to becoming prime minister. Mr Netanyahu is currently on trial for alleged corruption while serving as prime minister, allegations he strenuously denies.
The judge had earlier refused a request from the Netanyahus to be absent from court and participate instead via videoconference; they cited “security considerations” that made it it difficult to arrive at the court by 9am.
The judge noted in his ruling that the time of the hearing had been set more than two months earlier, and that the security arrangements had been made accordingly. He said he would begin the hearing at the appointed time and warned the Netanyahus not to be late.
“The way to avoid delays that stem from security arrangements is, of course, to leave home earlier,” he wrote.