Liberman's fate lies in balance as verdict to be announced today

Former FM’s fate to be decided on charges of fraud, breach of public trust; If Liberman is convicted without moral turpitude, he could remain in politics, but if he is found guilty, he would be banned for 7 years.

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November 6, 2013 06:38
Liberman arrives at court for verdict, November 6, 2013

Liberman arrives at court for verdict 370. (photo credit: Screenshot Channel 10)

 
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A three-judge panel of the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court is set to decide the legal and political fate of Yisrael Beytenu Party leader Avigdor Liberman on Wednesday morning in a long-awaited decision that could send shockwaves through the entire 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.

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If he is found innocent by judges Hagit Mack-Kalmanovitz, Yitzhak Shimoni and Eitan Kornhauser, many are predicting that his popularity would be further boosted, he would immediately return to the post of foreign minister, and he would be among the first in line to succeed Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as leader of the country’s right wing.

If he is convicted with a finding of moral turpitude, his resignation as foreign minister would be made permanent, he would be forced to resign from the Knesset, and he would be banned from political life for seven years.

In addition, predictions have been rampant that if he is convicted, his Yisrael Beytenu Party, built largely around his personality, would implode and a complete realignment of the political field would occur, with a line-up of parties competing to gain the loyalties of his constituents.

Whether he is found innocent or convicted would significantly impact to what extent the Likud and Yisrael Beytenu maintain their preelection alliance.

The prosecution’s main allegations are 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.

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Next, the prosecution says, 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 says 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). Liberman and his lawyer Jacob Weinroth denied any campaign whatsoever to assist Ben-Aryeh with the Latvian position, and played down the post in Liberman’s bureau as a temporary journeyman position for personnel waiting for their next real job.

They said that at most, he had committed an ethical infraction by not reporting Ben-Aryeh – but that he had certainly not done anything criminal.

Liberman’s narrative is that Ben-Aryeh did not communicate anything verbally about the note, that Liberman did not fully read it, that he thought it came from the Belarusian authorities or the media, and that he destroyed it as soon as he saw the words “investigation into Avigdor Liberman.”

This could nullify any proof that he had a criminal mental state regarding the note.

In his narrative, Ben-Aryeh not only initiated the issue, but completely caught him by surprise.

His instinctive reaction to destroy the note and not report him was at worst a misplaced worry about ruining Ben-Aryeh’s distinguished, decades-long career over a momentary lapse, which hurt no one.

Part of the drama surrounding the proceedings was the sensationalized conflict between Liberman and Ayalon, a former dynamic duo who ran the Foreign Ministry and Yisrael Beytenu, turned arch-enemies – leading to public fights about who was willing to shake who’s hand. Liberman accused Ayalon of lying about his helping Ben-Aryeh because he was angry the Yisrael Beytenu leader booted him from the party.

In reaction to the conflicting statements, the state said that Liberman’s story had evolved unbelievably to claiming that not only did he not meet privately with Ayalon about the Ben-Aryeh appointment, but he had never met privately with Ayalon about any appointments.

Liberman may have had a questionable narrative about how much guidance he gave Ben-Aryeh for seeking the promotion.

Ayalon, in contrast, was confronted with having to explain why he had told Channel 1 in an interview that Liberman was not involved in Ben-Aryeh’s appointment, while saying the opposite in court.

Though much of the coverage focused on Liberman vs Ayalon, the outcome could come down to whether the court accepts Ben-Aryeh’s statements to police or in court. (In fact, the court all but told the sides that the Ayalon-Liberman wars would not be relevant to the verdict.)

Ben-Aryeh himself was convicted in October 2012 for illegally passing Liberman the note. He told police he had elaborated upon the note and the investigation to Liberman, who took time to fully read the note before destroying it.

But in court, Ben-Aryeh turned hostile to the prosecution, slamming the witness stand and telling the court he did not say a word to Liberman about the note, claiming that he had misspoken under pressure from the police. He tried to say he corrected these statements at a later point while speaking to police, though the court did not accept this.

The prosecution must therefore contend with a core problem: That perhaps Liberman did not do something actively criminal – at most he failed to do something – report Ben-Aryeh.

Dr. Shmuel Saadia, a lawyer and author of an encyclopedic work on public corruption cases, said, “breach of public trust [and the minor fraud charge linked to it] is highly amorphous and controversial, and some have even argued for eliminating it as a crime.”

In a key decision by the Supreme Court in the case of Yehoshua Vita, a tax official accused of corruption, the court indicated that actions that could comprise a criminal level of conflict of interest may require a pattern of active conduct. The pattern would include the defendant initiating and placing themselves in a conflict of interest situation, and very close juxtaposition in the time of the events in question.

The court’s application of this case to Liberman’s case, especially since it questioned the lawyers about its implications, could heavily impact the verdict.

With all of the suspense surrounding Wednesday’s verdict, it is still unlikely to be the end to the story.

If Liberman is convicted without a finding of moral turpitude, he could remain in politics if he ignores his self-proclaimed and unenforceable commitment to resign upon any conviction.

Also, the case was assigned to the lowest court level, the magistrate’s court, meaning there is likely to be not one round of appeals, but two – one round to the district court and a second to the Supreme Court.

If Liberman is found guilty with moral turpitude, he would be outside public service, but could keep his hopes alive with an appeal.

If he is found innocent, he can return as foreign minister, though with some cloud of uncertainty as long as a prosecution appeal is pending.

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