Israel has seen some great political rivalries between titans who have
alternated between allies and archenemies.
Ben-Gurion vs Begin. Rabin and
Peres. Netanyahu and Barak.
Neither Avigdor Liberman nor Danny Ayalon has
been prime minister (yet), but between going from being the two top officials in
Israel’s foreign affairs to facing off in a dramatic battle at the Jerusalem
Magistrate’s Court that will determine not only Liberman and the Foreign
Ministry’s future but also the shape of Israeli politics, we can now add Ayalon
and Liberman to the list.
On Thursday, Ayalon took the stand against his
former boss and benefactor as the state’s star witness on charges of fraud and
breach of public trust.
They had been a dynamic duo that controlled
Israel’s foreign affairs and fought off international criticism of 2009’s
Operation Cast Lead and Turkey’s wrath after the May 2010 flotilla
Ayalon, as far as we saw in public, executed Liberman’s will,
however controversial, with precision, even placing the Turkish ambassador on a
lower sofa during a photo-op in January 2010, reportedly at Liberman’s orders,
to show Israeli anger with an anti- Semitic Turkish TV series.
Liberman’s criminal case, while still deputy foreign minister, Ayalon went out
on a limb, telling Channel 1 in an interview that Liberman did nothing improper
regarding Ze’ev Ben-Aryeh becoming ambassador to Latvia.
Ayalon also had
only praise and admiration for Liberman as a leader and foreign
All of that changed the day that Liberman unceremoniously
tossed him out of the Foreign Ministry and out of politics.
Liberman was unqualified to be foreign minister.
remembered not one, but three conversations with Liberman in which the latter
was involved in Ben-Aryeh’s appointment.
Liberman has counterattacked
Ayalon for allegedly changing his story once he was booted off his
So one would have expected tension that could be cut with a knife
in the courtroom on Thursday from the start.
There was a clash of the
titans. But it was mostly between Ayalon and Liberman’s surrogate, famous
top lawyer Jacob Weinroth. At one point, as they tried to talk over each other,
Weinroth even warned Ayalon, “Be careful, be careful.”
entered the courtroom to join Ayalon, Ayalon smiled and started to walk toward
him, as though to shake his hand. Liberman, making brief eye contact, nodded,
kept a strict poker face and then turned away.
Noticing the body
language, The Jerusalem Post
asked Ayalon if he was going to shake Liberman’s
He replied, “Yes, I was ready to shake Liberman’s hand. Didn’t
Rabin and Arafat shake hands?” Later, Liberman did weigh in on his feelings
toward Ayalon, when Ayalon repeated to the court his readiness to shake
Liberman’s hand – to which Liberman replied, “I don’t shake hands with cheaters
But mostly Liberman kept silent.
It was also striking
how calm Ayalon was throughout his testimony.
Even when Weinroth bated
him, quoting him telling the police of his initial reaction to Liberman giving
him the boot as being “shock and disappointment, and disappointment for the
whole Israeli nation,” Ayalon firmly, but mostly without emoting, emphasized
that he had not been and was “not angry” at Liberman.
Why would he be
angry for Liberman torpedoing his career? Perish the thought.
unclear whether Ayalon really is as cerebral and as able to compartmentalize
emotions as he appears, or whether he is pursuing this as a strategy: The more
he acts as if none of this is personal, the more likely the court will view his
testimony as objective, the better he can achieve the real goal of paying
Liberman back by wrecking his career.
There were several other dramatic
points. Weinroth kicked Ayalon’s adviser out of the courtroom, saying he plans
to call her as a witness and so she shouldn’t get to hear what Ayalon
Weinroth attacked Ayalon about his “secret” conversations with
Channel 10 News correspondent Baruch Kra, who broke the lid off of the police
having missed half the investigation, leading police to reopen the
Ayalon retorted multiple times that Kra was in the courtroom
(wearing jeans and a Tshirt) and that they could call him to testify, with Kra
looking on with a wide smile of amusement (or feigned amusement).
was Liberman, who has generally said little at the hearings, complaining he
could not hear Ayalon’s responses, so the court moved him to sitting directly
(inches away) behind where Ayalon was standing and testifying.
But all of
the side issues could not cover up the fact that one of the formerly most
powerful duos in politics was having the dirty laundry of its dramatic breakup
aired in court and before the public.
Whether it will be Liberman or
Ayalon who has the last laugh in this breakup still remains to be seen, but
Thursday was unquestionably Ayalon’s day.