Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman must have steel nerves.
For the past
decade at least, the law enforcement authorities reportedly have suspected him
of money-laundering, maintenance of secret or camouflaged foreign bank accounts,
and conducting bogus business activities abroad. The local news media say that
the attorney-general and the state prosecution are about to press charges
against him. If that happens, he will have to resign his post, but this threat
to his career and reputation seems to be consigned to newsprint and airwaves
rather than to reality.
It could be that Liberman’s role as leader of the
right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party is too important to the survival of Prime
Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition government for him to be sidelined by
legal proceedings. Even the recent expansion of its majority to 94 out of the
Knesset’s 120 seats did not make him expendable.
The case against
Liberman, which was spelled out in shocking detail by Gidi Weitz in Haaretz’s
weekly magazine section last Friday, alleges financial shenanigans of a
seemingly diabolical nature. For example, he reportedly assigned his former
driver to be one of his front men (with virtual executive status) insofar as his
international business operations were concerned. Liberman also is said to have
authorized his daughter to open and operate his bank accounts in
This information and much more presumably was obtained by Weitz
from sources in the law enforcement establishment, perhaps as a prelude to its
presentation in court.
One of the highest eyebrow-raisers is the foreign
minister’s reported relationship with an Austrian businessman by the name of
The latter is described by Weitz as the main source of
funding for Liberman’s political party. If this were true, it would be
tantamount to foreign involvement in Israel’s domestic political
Liberman has two trump cards to play in this strange
His creation of Yisrael Beytenu and its entry into the Likud-led
coalition assure a hard line on the territorial issue. This is because Yisrael
Beytenu” opposes the withdrawal of Israeli forces and Jewish settlers from the
West Bank and assures unswerving support for Netanyahu’s rightist stance by the
sizable number of former Soviet Jews who support it. But politics is one thing
and diplomatic reality is another.
Whoever serves as Israel’s foreign
minister should be someone whose personal behavior, manner of speech and ability
to explain the nation’s foreign policy to the international community are
exemplary. This cannot be said about a person who has been under police
investigation for 10 years, and who expresses the most militant and least
compromising views about the Israeli-Palestinian problem even while on
diplomatic missions abroad.
Liberman’s native tongue, Russian, is an
asset, but his ability speak in English is far from being perfect and has no
knowledge whatsoever of French or German.
His official itineraries
reflect this handicap. He rarely shows up in Washington and his trips to London
and Paris are few and far between.
The fact that his public statements
while abroad often run counter to the policies of his foreign hosts also is a
diplomatic handicap. Traditionally, Israel’s foreign ministers have represented
the most moderate views of the party or coalition in power rather than those of
its extremist fringe.
Much more disturbing than the political and
diplomatic aspects of Liberman’s public career – his climb up the ladder of
success from new immigrant to nighttime bouncer to government official to
various cabinet ministries to the prestigious post of foreign minister can be
matched or even surpassed only by his presumed financial and business
One can conclude from Weitz’s findings from the extensive data
leaked to him that Liberman is a very rich man in his own right. His bank
account(s) in Cyprus, deals closed in conjunction with Schlaf and business
operations in the Caribbean suggest this. His income tax file presumably
reflects this as well. However, unlike in the United States, where the taxes
paid or unpaid by public figures are accessible to journalists, in Israel they
Liberman’s Foreign Ministry colleagues credit him with having
nurtured and bolstered Israel’s relationship with Cyprus, Greece and the Balkan
states. This was highlighted by the unusually warm official welcome he received
during his last visit to Nicosia.
The effort he invested in this
strategic region was prompted by Turkey’s drastic transformation from a friendly
neighbor to a hotbed of anti- Israel hostility.
Liberman urged his
ministry’s seasoned diplomats to reach out to the Greek Cypriots, mainland
Greeks, Albanians and the former Yugoslavs (Serbs, Croats, Bosnians and
Montenegrins. The response evidently has been positive and the prospects for
closer ties in the years to come have been encouraging.
constant threat of legal action by Israel’s state prosecution is an
The international news media have been following the
prolonged standoff between Liberman and Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein. Their
coverage has not enhanced Liberman’s image as Israel’s foremost diplomatic
representative and spokesman.
It is conceivable that his survival is
largely due to the high priority Prime Minister Netanyahu gives to keeping his
parliamentary coalition stable and intact.
The likelihood that Haaretz’s
Weitz was the beneficiary of a premeditated leak from the bulging Liberman file
compiled by the police and accessible to the state prosecutors suggests that
these legally influential parties are anxious to have Liberman face his accusers
in a court of law.
For the time being, it seems that only one man other
than Liberman himself – the prime minister – is blocking them. This situation
cannot last forever, though, and the more suspense injected into it by seemingly
interminable delays the more politically explosive it may turn out to be when
Liberman’s day in court finally comes.
The writer is a veteran foreign