Israeli Freak Show: A Seasoned Diplomat's Take on the Netanyahu-Olmert Trial

If European diplomats had to write a cable on the testimonies presented before a Tel Aviv judge as part of the two prime ministers' legal battle, here's what they would have wrote

alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas
'A former prime minister calling another former prime minister mentally ill is very rare but hardly surprising'.
'A former prime minister calling another former prime minister mentally ill is very rare but hardly surprising'.Credit: Noam Rivkin Penton
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

“There was only one catch and that was Catch-33. Netanyahu would be crazy to go to court again and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to go to court. If he went to court he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to” – Joseph Heller, “Catch-33,” 2022.

***

It is rare for a newspaper to get its hands on a full political cable sent from a foreign ambassador in Israel to six European capitals. More importantly, it is unique, instructive and vexing when the said cable illuminates with high-power beams how foreign diplomats and governments view and perceive the state of Israeli politics and Israeli politicians.

The cable written by H.E. Carmine Rizzo, ambassador of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and rotating chairman of the European Federation embassies in Israel, is such a document. It is focused on the most bizarre news event to be covered by the Israeli media this week: The trial involving former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former prime minister Ehud Olmert.

Of course, ambassador Rizzo is not real, and neither is the Kingdom he represents. But the events described in the cable, believe it or not, all happened on Sunday in a small Tel Aviv courtroom. “It was a freak show. I’ve never seen anything like it before”, the ambassador wrote to his superiors.

“A former prime minister calling another former prime minister mentally ill is very rare but hardly surprising,” the seasoned, mild-mannered diplomat stated. “But even by the Israeli standards of coarse and profane political language, this exchange getting to court was a new low."

The entire exchange, Rizzo added, “would shame the American TV series ‘Veep.’”

Netanyahu filed an 837,000-shekel ($246,590) defamation suit against Olmert for branding him and his family “mentally ill.” The defendant claimed it was merely a figure of speech not uncommon or infrequent in Israel’s daily political discourse. But if he cannot prove that he did not make a clinical determination, then it will be seen as libelous. This is how Rizzo described the ordeal:

“Here was a former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, demanding that another former prime minister, Ehud Olmert, prove his contention that Netanyahu’s entire family is ‘mentally ill.

“The plaintiff PM, while desperately trying to disprove the allegation, did more to instill in public opinion the notion that the defendant PM may have had a point and question his judgment of inflating the issue and exposing him.

“Furthermore, it is unclear why he even filed the defamation suit, unless he was pressured heavily by his wife who felt offended and violated by the allegation. As it happened, an insult that would have been forgotten long ago turned into a debate Mr. Netanyahu clearly wanted to avoid, but couldn’t, and if he could, he wouldn’t, just like John Yossarian in ‘Catch-22.’

“Here was the spouse of a former prime minister claiming that, like Princess Diana, she was the victim of a smear campaign against her husband, and when confronted with tapes of her vociferously screaming, argued without proof that the tapes were either faked or cooked. … She declined to comment on her mental state and denied ever being treated, despite the defense providing circumstantial evidence.”

Ambassador Rizzo addressed the cable to the European Federation Supreme Council and to the foreign ministers of all six member-states: The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies; Austro-Hungary; the Kingdom of Prussia; Yugoslavia; the Republic of Corsica; and the United States of the Ionian Islands.

“It is weird and often incomprehensible,” Rizzo wrote, “when people use ‘brother’ and ‘bro’ together with ‘mentally ill,’ ‘psychopath,’ ‘Arab ass kisser’ and ‘terror sympathizer’ in the same sentence about the same person – only this time, it got to court.

“You would think that Israel, a self-described ‘Startup Nation,’ would be too busy with the prospects of a nuclear Iran, the war in Ukraine, a possible visit to the region by U.S. President Joe Biden, America’s disengagement from the Middle East, the exorbitant cost of living, high crime rates in Israeli-Arab society and the perpetual crisis that afflicts the coalition government twice a week. But no. Sunday was all about the alleged mental health of a previous/wannabe prime minister and his family.

“You should have heard the testimony of Prof. Uzi Arad, former head of the National Security Council under Netanyahu himself. It was political C-4 explosive – not to mention the expletives in the testimony of Netanyahu’s former media and political adviser, a certain Mr. Nir Hefetz, who happens to be a state witness after turning state’s evidence in Mr. Netanyahu’s ongoing criminal trials.

“Mr. Netanyahu’s son, a 31-year-old, unemployed social media troll and vitriol machine, was described by Hefetz as barging into his father’s office, getting on all fours like a dog, his tongue out, and accusing his father of ‘licking [then-Communications Minister] Moshe Kahlon’s [bottom].’ He then sprang up, clutched his crotch and said to the prime minister of Israel: ‘Keep on sucking Kahlon's d**k!’. All of this allegedly happened in front of the then-PM's most senior aides.

Sara Netanyahu in Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court on Sunday.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“His mother said in her son’s defense: ‘You have to understand, he was upset that his father didn’t consult him on issues.’”

Foreign ministries and intelligence services throughout European Federation capitals, from Palermo to Corfu, from Ajaccio to Berlin, were intrigued. After dispatching his initial report, Rizzo – who was present in the courtroom of Judge Amit Yariv – was asked to write a full report and analysis of what the case implies for the state and possible future of Israeli politics.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court on Sunday.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Rizzo’s cable does not mince words. “Uzi Arad accused Netanyahu of outsourcing policy decisions, appointments and time allocation to his wife, ‘who once charged and tried to attack me. … He was ill-prepared for a meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates because his wife decided she has better things for him to do. Gates was furious and even wrote about it in his memoir. Netanyahu did not read the briefs, lacked knowledge on the subject matter [the sale of fighter jets to Saudi Arabia] and just improvised. Those weren’t the only instances. Netanyahu refused to ask her to leave the room for fear of a tantrum when briefed on secret matters by the then-head of the Mossad – the late Meir Dagan – who summarily left and avoided going to Netanyahu’s residence again.’”

“Excellencies,” Rizzo addressed the foreign ministers in conclusion, “this is the guy who went to the U.S. Congress behind the president’s back and lobbied against the Iran nuclear deal. This is the guy who pressed Trump to withdraw from the deal. This is the guy who said Iran won’t proceed with its nuclear program. This is the guy who falsely said he had no idea the U.S. will sell F-35s to the United Arab Emirates. This is the guy who wants to be prime minister again. Inside his base, this freak show won’t hurt him. In fact, his cult-like following is in awe of what he’s had to go through, and will see this as proof of his strength. But for the rest of Israel, this is a reminder of the alternative to this weird government they now have.”

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