What are the boundaries of freedom of expression, particularly in the political sphere? That’s a question with which many Western countries are today grappling. And Israel is no different.
On Monday the Jewish state was subjected to the spectacle of one former prime minister suing another former prime minister over the latter calling the former “crazy.”
On the surface this just seems absurd. Political rivals call one another “crazy” and use all manner of other unflattering terminology on a regular basis.
But in his lawsuit, Benjamin Netanyahu insists that Ehud Olmert really meant it, which makes this a matter of defamation if Olmert can’t prove that Bibi is literally mentally ill.
In a series of interviews, Olmert said that he had concluded that Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu, and their eldest son Yair, were “mentally ill.” Asked by the judge at the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s court on Monday to explain the basis for such an allegation, Olmert responded:
“I followed their actions, I heard recordings of the family, I conferred with experts and people who are associated with them and know them well. They described to me behaviors that are popularly seen as abnormal, crazy behavior.”
Netanyahu’s lawyer shot back: “In another country Olmert would have been arrested for saying that!” Netanyahu was still the sitting prime minister when Olmert leveled his criticism.
“Thank God we don’t live in that country,” retorted Judge Amit Yariv.
The Netanyahu family is seeking over $250,000 in damages from Olmert, charging that his slanderous remarks had tarnished their good name.
The question, of course, is whether Olmert was literally asserting that the Netanyahu’s have a mental illness and are therefore unfit to lead the nation, or if it was merely an opinionated jab at his political rivals.
Judge Yariv noted as much and urged Olmert to clarify that his remarks were only a matter of opinion and not a medical assertion, thereby sparing the nation what he said was certain to turn into a “circus.”
But Olmert’s lawyer responded by asking to see the Netanyahu family’s medical records, thus indicating that his client was indeed very serious in his assertion of mental illness.
In short, this circus looks to be in town for a while.