Analysis: For Liberman, no longer ‘Garden of Eden’

Yisrael Beytenu party leader's gambles on legal outcomes are not always as brilliant as his gambles on politics.

January 15, 2013 00:55
4 minute read.
FM Liberman: "Our word is our bond"

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman - Our word is our Bond 390. (photo credit: Flash 90)


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The stakes just got even higher.

Only a month after resigning as foreign minister, Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman may exit political life more quickly than anyone could have predicted.

Convinced of his innocence and possibly playing some other cards, Liberman announced on Monday that he would quit politics entirely if he is convicted of any crime, no matter how minor and even if there is no finding of moral turpitude.

This is shocking from a legal perspective because the chances of his being convicted of at least breach of public trust are far higher than being convicted of fraud and being labeled as having committed acts constituting moral turpitude.

Until now, fraud and moral turpitude were thought to be the all-important questions, as a finding of either would likely sideline Liberman from politics for a minimum of seven years.

Politically, breach of trust is not much more than a legal curiosity.

If people bet on the outcomes of court cases, the bets on Liberman’s case have started to become clearer. But for fraud and moral turpitude, the case could be murky.

Almost no one appears to have suggested that Liberman gave a direct order to promote Ambassador Ze’ev Ben-Aryeh in a manner that was completely unjustified and unfounded. Ben-Aryeh is a former envoy to Belarus who was convicted of leaking to the then-foreign minister classified information about a money laundering investigation against Liberman, which has since been closed.

Liberman is accused of failing to report Ben-Aryeh’s indiscretion and of subsequently helping him obtain a posting to a new ambassadorship as “payment” for loyalty. It has come to be called the Belarus Ambassador Affair.

But the accusations center around appearances. In other words, if Ben-Aryeh had not leaked anything to Liberman, the alleged irregularities probably would not have raised eyebrows.

The indictment said Liberman told Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon that Ben-Aryeh should get the ambassadorship, and that Ayalon moved forward to try to implement Liberman’s recommendation. But so far there have been no allegations that anyone confronted Liberman about the choice or that he waived them off.

There are allegations that Ben- Aryeh was not as good an ambassador in Belarus as Liberman claimed, and that he should have been made to wait longer for a new posting abroad, according to standard procedures. But he did have ambassadorial experience, and Liberman’s words to Ayalon, according to the indictment, were that he believed Ben-Aryeh was best suited for the job – hardly an indication of fraud.

To prove fraud and to some extent moral turpitude, the prosecutor would have to show that Liberman acted in bad faith, and it is not clear whether any witnesses would even claim this. It also appears that other ministry personnel, including Liberman, would testify that there were no irregularities at all.

So intent, and with it fraud and moral turpitude, are going to be tough to prove.

Breach of public trust in Liberman’s case basically requires only that the court say he had an obligation to report Ben- Aryeh’s indiscretion and failed to do so. Liberman has admitted he failed to report this, but his response was that he did nothing wrong and did not want to ruin the career of a talented diplomat for a momentary lapse of judgment that harmed no one.

Maybe the court will view this as a valid excuse. But if it doesn’t, Liberman could be convicted of breach of public trust, at the very least for not initially reporting Ben-Aryeh’s passing on of information. He also could be separately convicted for not reporting to the Foreign Ministry later when Ben-Aryeh was up for a promotion.

If he sticks to his word, the Liberman game would then be over.

Since the barriers to convicting him of breach of public trust are objectively much lower than on the other issues, he has made a historic gamble with his career. He could be convicted for breach of public trust but not on the other issues, and then go back to being foreign minister in half a year or so. But not anymore.

Why take the gamble? First, it appears unmistakable from Liberman’s body language that he believes he will be found innocent. It must be remembered that a day before he resigned as foreign minister, he told the media he had a feeling of the “Garden of Eden” and that he would remain foreign minister.

There might also be political considerations, such as reclaiming the moral high ground as the country is about to vote, or trying to pressure the court into a “no conviction” scenario in which it could take a middle-of-the- road decision – convicting him for breach of trust, but not ending his career.

But one thing has become clear over the past month: Liberman’s gambles on legal outcomes are not always as brilliant as his gambles on politics, and this could be his last gamble.

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