Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein on Thursday announced a decision to charge Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman with fraud and breach of the public trust in the 2008 case involving obstruction of justice by former ambassador to Belarus Ze’ev Ben-Aryeh. However, Weinstein decided to close the main case against Liberman.
The decision was a shocking last-second turn of events in what was overall supposed to be a major Liberman victory being indicted only for breach of public trust.
Weinstein took the first step in the indictment process when he sent the
indictment text to Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, asking him to remove
Liberman's parliamentary immunity so that the indictment could be filed
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu welcomed Weinstein's decision to drop the biggest charges against Liberman, and seemed to brush 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."
While far from certain, it remained far more likely that Liberman will resign or be forced to resign as foreign minister.
Debates had swirled about whether he 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 than fraud in financial crimes is bribery.
Resigning is not guaranteed, as this is only an indictment and not a conviction. The law and judicial decisions do not require resignation outright for an indictment.
But there is case law that serious crimes, which most would include fraud in, require resignation.
To the extent that Liberman may not need to resign, it would likely be because his alleged fraudulent "sins" were mostly about omission, meaning not doing something he should have done.
Some consider that less serious than actively committing fraud.
But that is not all that Weinstein hit Liberman with.
The indictment also alleges essentially 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.
According to an earlier draft indictment in the main case, Liberman was suspected 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.
But 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.
Liberman and Ben-Aryeh's long history
Liberman and Ben-Aryeh knew each other for years before Ben-Aryeh worked for him as an ambassador in the foreign ministry.
On February 27, 2008, the indictment alleged that Ben-Aryeh received a request for legal assistance from the ministry of justice, 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.
Sometime between October 19-23, 2008, Liberman visited Belarus.
Ben-Aryeh met him at Liberman's hotel and asked to meet with Liberman in private, said the indictment.
During the private meeting in Liberman's room, Ben-Aryeh leaked and showed Liberman the investigative material which he was entrusted to transmit to the Belarus officials, including a note with some of the key information which Liberman reviewed and placed in his pocket, the indictment said.
The indictment said that Liberman accepted the information knowing that Ben-Aryeh was trying to aid him illegally in combatting the investigation against Liberman.
Subsequently, Liberman offered Ben-Aryeh a position as an advisor in his bureau in the foreign mnistry, which Ben-Aryeh started at on April 16, 2009.
From October to December 2009, Liberman aided Ben-Aryeh in moving forward to receive the ambassadorship for Latvia omitting at several opportunities revealing that Ben-Aryeh had illegally shared information with him, said the indictment.
Ben-Aryeh was approved for the new post and would have started except that investigation against him for leaking to Liberman became public.
Liberman has previously committed publicly to resigning if indicted, but at the time he was discussing the main case, not the Ben-Aryeh matter, which came later.
If Liberman did have to resign, but there was no eventual finding of moral turpitude, there would likely be no legal bar to him coming back as a minister.