After years of investigation and build-up, former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman pleaded not guilty and denied the charges against him of fraud and breach of public trust, at the opening of his trial on Sunday afternoon.

The initial witnesses are expected to take the stand on April 25 and 30, and May 2 and 7, following Passover, which means the trial will not conclude in time for Liberman to be appointed a minister when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu forms a new government.



If Liberman is convicted and his actions are found to constitute moral turpitude, he will have to resign from the Knesset and leave politics for a minimum of seven years, sidelining and possibly ending the political career of a man who is not much more than a heartbeat away from the post of prime minister.

If he is acquitted, he could still eventually get a belated ministerial appointment.

On January 27, Jerusalem District Court president Shlomit Dotan announced that three judges, Hagit Mack-Kalmanovitz, Yitzhak Shimoni and Eitan Kornhauser, would hear the case instead of the one judge required by law. This followed a request by Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein, due to the “public interest” relating to the matter.

In the event of an appeal, the decision of three judges is harder to overturn than that of a single judge.

In an interesting twist that could foreshadow at least one of the judges calling for a lenient sentence, Mack- Kalmanovitz convicted former Belarus ambassador Ze’ev Ben-Aryeh on charges of obstruction of justice and breach of public trust, and sentenced him in October to only four months of community service for having illegally passed secret documents to Liberman in 2008 about an ongoing money laundering investigation against him.

Ben-Aryeh’s subsequent ambassadorial appointment to Latvia is what led to the current case, which has come to be called the Belarus Ambassador Affair.

Liberman was indicted on December 27 for fraud and breach of public trust. The updated indictment (a first draft had been publicized two weeks before) alleged that he failed to report that Ben- Aryeh had illegally shown him the secret material, and subsequently helped Ben- Aryeh be named ambassador to Latvia as a “payment” after the fact.

Liberman was represented at Sunday’s hearing by five attorneys led by Ya’akov Weinroth and Giora Aderet.

They denied their client took improper actions to advance Ben-Aryeh’s appointment, such as pressuring outgoing Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, and denied he had held onto the document that Ben-Aryeh gave him regarding the money laundering investigation.

Liberman’s legal team made no preliminary legal claims in an attempt to beat the charges without having to go to trial. They also implied they might accept some prosecution testimony in the form of affidavits and that Liberman’s denial might make some witnesses unnecessary, in an effort to move the case along.

The trial is expected to involve eight to 10 days of witness testimony.

There was no formal press conference, but when trying to make his way to his car, Aderet told a group of reporters that “we hope the trial will be fast. We hope for and expect an acquittal.”

After the initial draft indictment was announced on December 13, Liberman resigned as foreign minister and waived his parliamentary immunity. The draft indicated that Liberman discussed the possible ambassadorship with Ben-Aryeh when the latter asked him for advice, and told Ben-Aryeh he would support his candidacy.

Next, the indictment said that Liberman summoned Ayalon and told him they should appoint Ben-Aryeh to the Latvian post. Ayalon, in his capacity as deputy foreign minister, served as chairman of the ministry’s seven-person “higher appointments” committee responsible for filling vacancies at embassies and consulates abroad.

According to the indictment, Liberman told Ayalon that Ben-Aryeh was the most qualified candidate for the job, although he did not mention to Ayalon the earlier incident in which Ben-Aryeh had leaked to Liberman the information about the money laundering investigation.

Ayalon, who barely knew Ben-Aryeh, then acted, based on Liberman’s encouragement and documents before the committee, to try to ensure his appointment, the indictment said.

The document did not specify what actions Ayalon took in that regard, although the issue will probably be fleshed out by witnesses in court.

Ayalon is expected to be one of the star witnesses against Liberman among several top Foreign Ministry and other officials.

Ayalon went back on the offensive against his former boss over the weekend, saying the latter should not return to the Foreign Ministry even if he is exonerated.

Ayalon said that “Liberman put pressure [on the selection committee] to appoint certain people to the Foreign Service, which I succeeded in blocking, because I convinced him that they were not worthy.”

But Ayalon added that there had been nothing improper about the Ben-Aryeh appointment itself, a statement which, if repeated at the trial, would help Liberman’s legal case much more than any political attacks Ayalon has made on him.

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