Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman responded defiantly on Thursday to
Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein’s decision to charge him with fraud and breach
of the public trust, while clearing him on more serious allegations including
money-laundering and bribery.
Liberman denied all wrongdoing and called
for expedited legal proceedings.
“According to the legal opinion given to
me, I do not have to resign,” an upbeat Liberman told applauding supporters in
Tel Aviv. “A final decision will be made after consultation with my lawyers and
in the consideration of not hurting the voting public.”
Binyamin Netanyahu welcomed the attorney-general’s decision to drop the biggest
charges against Liberman, brushing aside the planned indictment for fraud and
breach of public trust.
“I believe in the legal system in Israel and
respect it,” Netanyahu said. “The right it gives each citizen in Israel to
defend himself applies to Minister Liberman as well, and I wish him the best in
proving his innocence on the single issue that is left.”
focuses on alleged obstruction of justice in Liberman’s efforts in 2009 to
promote former ambassador to Belarus Ze’ev Ben-Aryeh, who had leaked him
privileged information about a police probe pertaining to Liberman.
foreign minister struck a defiant tone at a Yisrael Beytenu Youth function held
at the Fashion Bar club in Tel Aviv on Thursday night.
He said he wanted
to “set the record straight” and described himself as the victim of one long
investigation that never let up for a single day since he became director of
then-prime minister Netanyahu’s office in July 1996.
“Since July 1996,
I’ve been under one long investigation, since then, not a single day has passed
that I was not an investigative target...all part of one long investigation,
with the name changing from time to time,” he said.
Liberman said no promotion had been given to Ben- Aryeh, nor was there any
conflict of interest, adding that while he was in Minsk for a visit as an
opposition MK, he had met with Ben- Aryeh in his hotel room. He said Ben-Aryeh
had given him an envelope and “I opened it. At first I didn’t understand what
this was. I took a look, I told him to leave this nonsense alone. I threw it
aside and I left the hotel. That was it.”
Liberman said that he later
hired Ben-Aryeh at the Foreign Ministry because of his talents and expertise,
and that he's thought many times about what happened, but doesn’t think he would
act differently if given the chance.
“I think like any other reasonable
person, I would not have acted differently. Here I try to replay everything that
happened, if I would have acted differently, and told him, from now you're fired
and then go and testify about the story to everyone, I would think that in the
morning I wouldn't have been able to look at myself in the mirror. That’s the
“If after all these years, that’s the story and I have to
pay the price, I’ll pay the price,” Lieberman said, adding that he would give up
his parliamentary immunity and hope for as quick a trial as
Liberman said that while in the past he had vowed to resign
immediately if indicted “back then that dealt with a serious indictment, this is
a different case.”
He also said there is public interest involved, and
since Yisrael Beytenu was elected by over 400,000 voters, there would be an
infringement on the desires of the public if he were to resign.
that he would consult with his lawyers about resigning, and make a decision
while also taking into account the public consideration.
“I’m sure I'll
make the right decision,” Liberman concluded.
Weinstein’s decision to
charge the Yisrael Beytenu chairman with fraud on Thursday was a shocking
last-second turn of events in what was overall supposed to be a major Liberman
victory of being indicted only for breach of public trust.
the first step in the indictment process when he sent the text of the charge
sheet to Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, asking him to remove Liberman’s
parliamentary immunity so that the indictment could be filed in
Debates had swirled about whether Liberman would not need to
resign, since the applicable law and the courts are not clear on whether breach
of public trust is a serious crime.
Fraud, on the other hand, is the
paradigm financial crime, and the only thing worse in financial crimes is
A resignation is not certain, as this is only an indictment and
not a conviction.
The law and judicial decisions do not require
resignation for all indictments.
But there is case law that serious
charges, among which most would include fraud, require resignation.
the extent that Liberman may not need to resign, it would likely be because his
alleged fraudulent “sins” were mostly ones of omission, meaning not doing
something he should have done.
Some consider that less serious than
actively committing fraud.
But failure to report Ben- Aryeh’s illegal
conduct was not all that Weinstein hit Liberman with. The indictment also
essentially alleges that Liberman gave Ben- Aryeh new Foreign Ministry jobs as
“payment” for the illegal leaks to him.
There is no allegation that there
was a deal cut beforehand, but that may not make a difference.
case (known as such because it started between six and 16 years ago, depending
on whom you ask) which was closed had involved allegations against Liberman of
receiving millions of dollars from private business people through straw
companies between the years 2001 and 2008, while he was a member of Knesset and
a cabinet minister.
The foreign minister had already undergone an unusual
three pre-indictment hearing with the state attorney, and many times Weinstein
has said he would decide whether to submit an indictment against him.
on November 8, the State Attorney’s Office responded to a petition to the High
Court of Justice demanding a decision on the case, stating that Weinstein would
decide within about a month and before the January 22 election.
years after the prosecution first received the case, Weinstein finally came
through with the decision to close the case.
The Ben-Aryeh indictment
alleges that Liberman and Ben-Aryeh knew each other for years before Ben-Aryeh
worked for him as an ambassador in the Foreign Ministry.
alleged that Ben-Aryeh received a request for legal assistance from the Justice
Ministry on February 27, 2008, which he was supposed to transmit to the Belarus
officials as an official request to help the ministry gather evidence against
Liberman in Belarus, including documents and witness testimony.
between October 19 and 23, 2008, Liberman visited Belarus.
him at Liberman’s hotel and asked to meet with Liberman in private, said the
During the private meeting in Liberman’s room, Ben-Aryeh
showed Liberman the investigative material that he was entrusted to transmit to
the Belarus officials, including a note with some of the key information that
Liberman reviewed and placed in his pocket, the indictment said.
indictment said that Liberman accepted the information knowing that Ben-Aryeh
was trying to aid him illegally in combatting the investigation against
Subsequently, Liberman offered Ben-Aryeh a position as an adviser in
his bureau in the Foreign Ministry, which Ben-Aryeh started at on April 16,
From October to December 2009, Liberman aided Ben-Aryeh in moving
forward to receive the ambassadorship to Latvia, omitting at several
opportunities to reveal that Ben-Aryeh had illegally shared information with
him, said the indictment.
Ben-Aryeh was approved for the new post and
would have started it, except that the investigation against him for leaking to
Liberman became public.
Last May, Ben-Aryeh was convicted of obstruction
of justice as part of a plea bargain, and it is assumed that he has provided the
state with significant evidence.
Reacting to Thursday’s announcement,
Liberman was defiant, if in a slightly more understated tone than
He accused the state of conducting a 16-year rolling
investigation against him, pledged that at least for the moment, he would not
resign pending discussion with his lawyers, and detailed his narrative of why he
The narrative was essentially that he did not really review
what Ben-Aryeh tried to show him, gave it back to Ben-Aryeh telling him to “stop
fooling around,” and that when he helped to promote Ben-Aryeh it was a unanimous
decision with other members of a panel because of his strong
Liberman did not directly explain why he believed it was
acceptable that he “forgot” the matter and failed to report on
Liberman may eventually not have a choice about resigning.
Even with political support and with Weinstein not directly calling for his
resignation, Weinstein's condemnation, including in the main case that was
closed, was apparent.
Weinstein may not defend Liberman in court if and
when a petition is filed with the High Court to compel his
Liberman had previously committed publicly to resigning if
indicted, but he had been referring to the main case, not the Ben- Aryeh matter,
which came later.
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Reuters contributed to this report.