Netanyahus to Be Questioned in Court on Libel Suit

Judge rejects their request for postponement, allows defendant Yigal Sarna to call ex-Shin Bet head to testify

Netanyahus on their way to London, Feb. 5, 2017.
Kobi Gideon/GPO

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara are to be questioned in court on Tuesday regarding affidavits they submitted in their libel suit against journalist Yigal Sarna, after Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court Judge Azaria Alcalay rejected their petition to postpone their appearance.

The Netanyahus’ attorney, Yossi Cohen, had asked the court for the postponement last Thursday “in light of the many international political tasks of the prime minister, including international meetings, some of which are unexpected.” Cohen’s request for a postponement came after a previous postponement had been granted due to “a meeting of the government at that time.”

Sarna, a journalist for the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth, said he opposed a postponement because “the petitioner is the plaintiff. The petitioner knew about all his tasks and obligations when he chose to sue. Let the petitioner be so good as to rescind his suit and refile it when he has time.”

In rejecting the petition, the judge wrote: “There is no doubt that the plaintiff as prime minister of Israel is a very busy man and no one disputes that his activities are of unparalleled importance. Nevertheless, plaintiffs must know that when they petition the court that they must present themselves at the determined time to be questioned about their affidavits, and to this end, the plaintiff, the prime minister, will do the honor of taking time from his important activities. Moreover I have ruled that the plaintiff must only be present to present his statement and I believe this will not take much time.”

The suit filed by the Netanyahus involves a Facebook post by Sarna in which he described an incident that he said took place as the prime minister’s motorcade was traveling on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway. According to Sarna, during the trip the entire motorcade stopped and the prime minister was asked to get out of the car, while Sara Netanyahu mocked the security arrangements and, further, the entire country.

בבאב אל ואד, לצד כביש אחד, מחכה רודן זעיר בחושך לטרמפ. קחו אותו.(ביצע: Amir Schiby

Posted by ‎יגאל סרנה‎ on Monday, March 21, 2016

The Netanyahus filed a libel suit for 280,000 shekels ($76,213) against Sarna. They said Sarna had committed an injustice against them in a manner that was “disgusting, cynical, low, mean and inordinate,” one intended “to attempt to shame the plaintiffs, revile them and embarrass them publicly by means of ugly and false reports, which have not an iota of truth to them.”

In his response to the lawsuit, Sarna, who is represented by attorneys Lior Epstein and Avigdor Feldman, said his Facebook post was an expression of his opinion. He added that what he wrote was “entirely true, published in good faith based on proper and reliable sources, and bearing characteristics similar or identical to known episodes in the Netanyahus’ family life.”

In another ruling, Judge Alcalay allowed Sarna to call former Shin Bet security head Yoram Cohen to testify.

Sarna requested that Cohen and his predecessor Yuval Diskin be called to testify because their testimony “was essential for his defense and to get to the truth.” He said the alleged incident to which he referred and similar incidents required the Shin Bet’s intervention, so Diskin and Cohen would have known about them. “This case deals with statements involving a pattern of behavior attributing to Sara Netanyahu certain conduct of fits of rage, which influence the prime minister and security arrangements,” Sarna said in his statement of defense.

The Netanyahus opposed Diskin and Cohen testifying. They said Diskin had served from 2005 to 2011, and Cohen from 2011 to 2016; Sarna wrote that that the purported incident happened between July and December 2015.

Alcalay rejected the demand to summon Diskin: “The incidents described in the post happened according to the defendant during 2015, when Mr. Diskin was not head of the Shin Bet, and so it is unclear how he could contribute to the matter.”

However the judge did allow Cohen to be summoned to testify. While Cohen’s testimony was not relevant regarding Netanyahu’s conduct, he was head of the Shin Bet during the time in question and he could testify as long as he kept to the matter of Sarna’s post.