A journalist has been fined about USD 32,500 by an Israeli court for writing a “malicious and ugly” Facebook post that claimed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife Sara kicked the Israeli leader out of their car during a fight on a major highway. The Netanyahus last year filed a defamation suit against scribe Igal Sarna after he alleged that Sara had stopped the prime minister’s convoy on a major artery connecting Jerusalem with Tel Aviv and kicked her husband out of their car. Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court Judge, Azaria Alcalay, in his order said that he agreed with the Netanyahus that “the publication was, at least partially, malicious and ugly”.
The ruling awarded NIS 60,000 to Benjamin Netanyahu, NIS 40,000 to Sara Netanyahu and another NIS 15,000 in legal fees. The couple had demanded NIS 279,243 (USD 72,813) from Sarna over his claims in the libel suit at the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court.
While the order said that the account had hurt the Netanyahus public standing, it awarded the couple less than damages asked for because it did not “reach the highest threshold of severity”. Alcalay ruled that the events as described by Sarna were not proven to have occurred. He also criticised the style of the Facebook posts, saying they were written in an “impassioned style meant to augment the tale and dramatise it while expressing contempt for the plaintiffs.” An unrepentant Sarna in his response to the verdict said that he is going to appeal against it. “This kind of verdict is expected in these dark days. But it is only the beginning of the struggle against the attempt to silence,” he wrote.
Sarna, a journalist for Israel’s largest circulated daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, did not cite any source for his allegations, and his account never appeared in the paper known for being critical of Netanyahu. He claimed that he was told about the incident by an acquaintance, who cited a security guard in Netanyahu’s service. The reporter also said that he was told by a friend of the couple that similar incidents had happened before. The judge rejected Sarna’s claim that the posts were a legitimate expression of opinion and criticism, protected by freedom of speech. “There’s no disputing that as people in the public eye, the plaintiffs ought to have the higher tolerance to criticism than others,” the judge said but added that Sarna’s post was not an opinion but claimed to be a statement of fact.
The judge also rejected the defense’s claim that the post was minor and inconsequential, and criticized Sarna for not seeking to verify the information he received before publishing it.
However, the judge ruled that Sarna’s second post, an image of Netanyahu, was clearly a cartoon and therefore not libelous. The prime minister himself appeared on the witness stand in March to tell the court that “anyone who knows anything about motorcade security knows that something like that can’t happen”.
He called the post a “vulgar lie that led me here (to testify)”. Sara, who also appeared with her husband in the court, dubbed Sarna’s claim among the “very bad lies.”