The Jerusalem Magistrate's Court on Wednesday acquitted former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman on charges of fraud and breach of public trust, in a long-awaited decision which sent shock waves throughout the Israeli political system.
Since Liberman was indicted on charges of fraud and breach of public trust in December 2012, Israeli politics have been on pause (the post of foreign minister has been held in trust for him) to learn the fate of one of the most dominant forces of the last decade.
Liberman addressed the media upon leaving the courtroom, saying that, "this issue is behind me, I don't want to deal with it anymore. I want to focus on new challenges."
He refused to answer questions about his political future and a possible return to his post of foreign minister following the acquittal.
The lead attorney for the State, Michal Sable said that the state believed "it had sufficient evidence for a conviction, but the court thought otherwise."
Justice Ministry spokesman Moshe Cohen added that the prosecution would study the decision, adding there would be public comments yet on an appeal.
Many are predicting that with his acquittal his popularity will be further boosted, and he will immediately return to the post of foreign minister.
A great deal was at stake for Liberman and the Israeli political establishment in the outcome of the legal saga.
Had he been convicted with a finding of moral turpitude, his resignation as foreign minister would have been made permanent, he would have been forced to resign from the Knesset, and he would have been banned from political life for seven years.
The prosecution’s main allegations were as follows: First, in October 2008, Ambassador to Belarus Ze’ev Ben-Aryeh gave Liberman a note with information about a state investigation into money-laundering allegations against him, discussing the case with him for three to five minutes.
Next, the prosecution said, Liberman destroyed the note, failed to report Ben-Aryeh and then helped him procure promotions in the Foreign Ministry.
After that, Ben-Aryeh joined Liberman’s bureau in April 2009.
The prosecution said that Liberman both failed to report Ben-Aryeh to the Foreign Ministry’s appointments committee and actively campaigned in fall 2009 for Ben-Aryeh to be appointed as Latvian ambassador.
According to the prosecution, the campaign included Liberman giving instructions to then-deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon saying that Ben-Aryeh was his preferred candidate (all of this based on what Ayalon told police).
In a 115 page opinion, Judges Hagit Mack-Kalmanovitz, Yitzhak Shimoni and Eitan Kornhauser ruled Wednesday that Ben-Aryeh had been solely responsible for initiating and surprising Liberman during the incident, who had no part in initiating the exchange between them.
The court also held that Liberman did not know, regardless of whether he and Ben-Aryeh spoke about the note for a few minutes, that the source of the note was an Israeli Justice Ministry investigation against him.
While the prosecution and the defense heavily debated whether Liberman and Ben-Aryeh spoke at all, the court noted that the state did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt from Ben-Aryeh's statements that he had specifically told Liberman that the investigation originated from the Israeli Justice Ministry as opposed to from Belarus or from a media source.
In that regard, a critical point which the ruling focused on was which version of Ben-Aryeh's story to believe.
Ben-Aryeh gave three different statements to police and a fourth version of events in the court.
Overall Ben-Aryeh's statements to police were problematic for Liberman, whereas his in-court statement was favorable to Liberman.
The prosecution asked the court to accept his police statements over his in-court testimony.
Generally speaking, the court agreed with the prosecution on that issue, noting that Ben-Aryeh's statements to police were made spontaneously when he did not realize the seriousness of the issue, whereas his in-court statements were made after he was convicted and with full-knowledge that Liberman's political future (and Ben-Aryeh testified that he was an admirer and long-time associate of Liberman's) could depend on his testimony.
But despite all of that, the court noted that even in Ben-Aryeh's statements to police, only in one of his three versions in seven-and-a-half hours of interrogations did he mention specifically telling Liberman that the source of the note was specifically an Israeli investigation.
The court found that since Ben-Aryeh even in his other police statements did not mention that specific fact, and this when he was still making statements which overall hurt Liberman's case, it could not conclude that Liberman knew that the note related to an Israeli investigation versus a Belarusian or media-based one.
Next, the court noted that there was no proof that Liberman tried to inappropriately help Ben-Aryeh to obtain the post as Latvian Ambassador, and that Ben-Aryeh was qualified to hold the post in any event.
The court did find that Liberman "acted inappropriately" but added that "the gravity of the conflict of interest" did not merit a conviction.
The judges strongly rejected the testimony of Ayalon, stating that it was contradicted by other top Foreign Ministry officials.
They also wrote that Ayalon had not sufficiently explained how he swiftly went from defending Liberman's innocence in an interview with Channel 1 while still working for Liberman, to suddenly proclaiming his guilt shortly after Liberman booted him out of Yisrael Beytenu.