Testimony in trial of former FM Liberman begins

Liberman’s political future hangs in the balance as trial on charges of fraud and breach of public trust reopens.

By
April 25, 2013 06:26
Avigdor Liberman leaving court after first hearing in corruption trial, February 17, 2013.

Liberman trial starts 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

 
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After years of investigation and build-up, testimony in the trial of former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman on charges of fraud and breach of public trust begins on Thursday.

Liberman pleaded not guilty and denied the charges against him on February 17.

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The prosecution said it planned to call two witnesses on Thursday – former ambassador to Belarus Ze’ev Ben- Aryeh and former Foreign Ministry inspector Victor Harel, in the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court.

Ben-Aryeh may be the key witness in the case, as he cut a plea bargain deal with the state in the underlying case against him that led to the spin-off case against Liberman.

One of the main issues in dispute is what Liberman did with – and what was his intent in accepting – classified investigative information that Ben-Aryeh illegally provided to Liberman. When the state was investigating Liberman for a separate case involving money laundering in 2008, it gave Ben-Aryeh, then the ambassador to Belarus, a classified request for information to pass on to the Belarusian authorities.

Ben-Aryeh then gave a copy of the classified documents to Liberman. Ben-Aryeh was on track to being appointed as ambassador to Latvia, before being forced to resign from the Foreign Ministry when the affair became public.

Ben-Aryeh’s testimony about Liberman’s reaction to – and behavior after – receiving the illegal information, will be crucial to the case.

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The Justice Ministry recently confirmed that transcripts of the police interrogation of Liberman were filed with the courts, with reports surfacing of Liberman characterizing Ben-Aryeh as weak-minded and willing to tell his interrogators what they wanted to hear.

According to reports, Liberman went so far as to say that if he himself questioned Ben- Aryeh for 10 straight hours, he could get him to “admit that he crucified Jesus.”

The second expected witness, Harel, has publicly criticized Liberman as having inappropriately pushed for promotions for Ben-Aryeh and has blasted the idea that the former Belarusian ambassador was worthy of any promotions, stating that he rated him negatively in his evaluation.

On Wednesday night, Channel 10 News reported that Liberman’s version of events surrounding Ben-Aryeh’s promotions was directly contradicted by former deputy foreign minister and ex-Yisrael Beytenu MK Danny Ayalon.

Whereas Ayalon said that Liberman had consulted with him and pushed for Ben-Aryeh’s promotion, Liberman, the report noted, told police “it never happened, that’s his position and this is mine.”

Liberman continued to rebut Ayalon’s version of events, saying people could also say “I killed [Zionist leader Haim] Arlosoroff [in 1933]. I don’t have to explain what others say,” according to the report.

Lawyers for Liberman said they had filed a complaint with Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein asking him to investigate how leaks of Liberman’s testimony had found their way into the media, and to prosecute the leakers.

The trial is expected to be expedited, with hearings in close succession from Thursday through the end of June. Additional evidence and any closing statements are due to be submitted in July.

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, at times, has been not much more than a heartbeat away from the post of prime minister.

If he is acquitted, he has publicly said that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will immediately return him to head the Foreign Ministry. Netanyahu has held onto the post himself since his new government was formed, appearing to confirm Liberman’s statements.

In October, Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court Deputy President Hagit Kalmanovith convicted Ben-Aryeh on charges of obstruction of justice and breach of public trust, and sentenced him to only four months of community service.

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 put Ben-Aryeh on track to being named ambassador to Latvia as a “payment” after the fact.

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. 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, including Ben-Aryeh and several top Foreign Ministry and other officials. Ayalon publicly went 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.

“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,” Ayalon has said.

But he has also 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.

Liberman has responded, characterizing Ayalon as dishonest and vengeful after Liberman essentially tossed him out of Yisrael Beytenu ahead of January’s national election, noting that Ayalon did not criticize Liberman as long as he had a highlevel government job.

Meanwhile on Wednesday, the Justice Ministry confirmed that it was investigating two former senior advisers to Liberman from his time as foreign minister for possible illegalities relating to overseas flights and the running of Liberman’s bureau.

There is no direct connection between the case, in which Liberman is not a suspect, and the fraud case against Liberman that restarts on Thursday. However, the prosecution passed on its evidence in the case against Liberman’s aides to Liberman’s lawyers to avoid any claim by them that the prosecution withheld evidence from them that could aid in their client’s defense.

One overlap between the cases is that Ayalon will testify against Liberman and has provided evidence in the case against his former advisers.

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