Liberman on indictment: I don't plan to quit

After A-G says he will indict Liberman for fraud, breach of trust, FM says he sees no reason to resign despite calls for him to do so.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman 390 (photo credit: Flash 90)
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman 390
(photo credit: Flash 90)
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman responded defiantly on Thursday to Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein’s decision to charge him with fraud and breach of the public trust, while clearing him on more serious allegations including money-laundering and bribery.
Liberman denied all wrongdoing and called for expedited legal proceedings.
“According to the legal opinion given to me, I do not have to resign,” an upbeat Liberman told applauding supporters in Tel Aviv. “A final decision will be made after consultation with my lawyers and in the consideration of not hurting the voting public.”
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu welcomed the attorney-general’s decision to drop the biggest charges against Liberman, brushing aside the planned indictment for fraud and breach of public trust.
“I believe in the legal system in Israel and respect it,” Netanyahu said. “The right it gives each citizen in Israel to defend himself applies to Minister Liberman as well, and I wish him the best in proving his innocence on the single issue that is left.”
The indictment focuses on alleged obstruction of justice in Liberman’s efforts in 2009 to promote former ambassador to Belarus Ze’ev Ben-Aryeh, who had leaked him privileged information about a police probe pertaining to Liberman.
The foreign minister struck a defiant tone at a Yisrael Beytenu Youth function held at the Fashion Bar club in Tel Aviv on Thursday night.
He said he wanted to “set the record straight” and described himself as the victim of one long investigation that never let up for a single day since he became director of then-prime minister Netanyahu’s office in July 1996.
“Since July 1996, I’ve been under one long investigation, since then, not a single day has passed that I was not an investigative target...all part of one long investigation, with the name changing from time to time,” he said.
Liberman said no promotion had been given to Ben- Aryeh, nor was there any conflict of interest, adding that while he was in Minsk for a visit as an opposition MK, he had met with Ben- Aryeh in his hotel room. He said Ben-Aryeh had given him an envelope and “I opened it. At first I didn’t understand what this was. I took a look, I told him to leave this nonsense alone. I threw it aside and I left the hotel. That was it.”
Liberman said that he later hired Ben-Aryeh at the Foreign Ministry because of his talents and expertise, and that he's thought many times about what happened, but doesn’t think he would act differently if given the chance.
“I think like any other reasonable person, I would not have acted differently. Here I try to replay everything that happened, if I would have acted differently, and told him, from now you're fired and then go and testify about the story to everyone, I would think that in the morning I wouldn't have been able to look at myself in the mirror. That’s the whole story.”
“If after all these years, that’s the story and I have to pay the price, I’ll pay the price,” Lieberman said, adding that he would give up his parliamentary immunity and hope for as quick a trial as possible.
Liberman said that while in the past he had vowed to resign immediately if indicted “back then that dealt with a serious indictment, this is a different case.”
He also said there is public interest involved, and since Yisrael Beytenu was elected by over 400,000 voters, there would be an infringement on the desires of the public if he were to resign.
He added that he would consult with his lawyers about resigning, and make a decision while also taking into account the public consideration.
“I’m sure I'll make the right decision,” Liberman concluded.
Weinstein’s decision to charge the Yisrael Beytenu chairman with fraud on Thursday was a shocking last-second turn of events in what was overall supposed to be a major Liberman victory of being indicted only for breach of public trust.
Weinstein took the first step in the indictment process when he sent the text of the charge sheet to Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, asking him to remove Liberman’s parliamentary immunity so that the indictment could be filed in court.
Debates had swirled about whether Liberman would not need to resign, since the applicable law and the courts are not clear on whether breach of public trust is a serious crime.
Fraud, on the other hand, is the paradigm financial crime, and the only thing worse in financial crimes is bribery.
A resignation is not certain, as this is only an indictment and not a conviction.
The law and judicial decisions do not require resignation for all indictments.
But there is case law that serious charges, among which most would include fraud, require resignation.
To the extent that Liberman may not need to resign, it would likely be because his alleged fraudulent “sins” were mostly ones of omission, meaning not doing something he should have done.
Some consider that less serious than actively committing fraud.
But failure to report Ben- Aryeh’s illegal conduct was not all that Weinstein hit Liberman with. The indictment also essentially alleges that Liberman gave Ben- Aryeh new Foreign Ministry jobs as “payment” for the illegal leaks to him.
There is no allegation that there was a deal cut beforehand, but that may not make a difference.
The “main” case (known as such because it started between six and 16 years ago, depending on whom you ask) which was closed had involved allegations against Liberman of receiving millions of dollars from private business people through straw companies between the years 2001 and 2008, while he was a member of Knesset and a cabinet minister.
The foreign minister had already undergone an unusual three pre-indictment hearing with the state attorney, and many times Weinstein has said he would decide whether to submit an indictment against him.
But on November 8, the State Attorney’s Office responded to a petition to the High Court of Justice demanding a decision on the case, stating that Weinstein would decide within about a month and before the January 22 election.
Three years after the prosecution first received the case, Weinstein finally came through with the decision to close the case.
The Ben-Aryeh indictment alleges that Liberman and Ben-Aryeh knew each other for years before Ben-Aryeh worked for him as an ambassador in the Foreign Ministry.
The indictment alleged that Ben-Aryeh received a request for legal assistance from the Justice Ministry on February 27, 2008, which he was supposed to transmit to the Belarus officials as an official request to help the ministry gather evidence against Liberman in Belarus, including documents and witness testimony.
Sometime between October 19 and 23, 2008, Liberman visited Belarus.
Ben-Aryeh met him at Liberman’s hotel and asked to meet with Liberman in private, said the indictment.
During the private meeting in Liberman’s room, Ben-Aryeh showed Liberman the investigative material that he was entrusted to transmit to the Belarus officials, including a note with some of the key information that Liberman reviewed and placed in his pocket, the indictment said.
The indictment said that Liberman accepted the information knowing that Ben-Aryeh was trying to aid him illegally in combatting the investigation against him.
Subsequently, Liberman offered Ben-Aryeh a position as an adviser in his bureau in the Foreign Ministry, which Ben-Aryeh started at on April 16, 2009.
From October to December 2009, Liberman aided Ben-Aryeh in moving forward to receive the ambassadorship to Latvia, omitting at several opportunities to reveal that Ben-Aryeh had illegally shared information with him, said the indictment.
Ben-Aryeh was approved for the new post and would have started it, except that the investigation against him for leaking to Liberman became public.
Last May, Ben-Aryeh was convicted of obstruction of justice as part of a plea bargain, and it is assumed that he has provided the state with significant evidence.
Reacting to Thursday’s announcement, Liberman was defiant, if in a slightly more understated tone than typical.
He accused the state of conducting a 16-year rolling investigation against him, pledged that at least for the moment, he would not resign pending discussion with his lawyers, and detailed his narrative of why he was innocent.
The narrative was essentially that he did not really review what Ben-Aryeh tried to show him, gave it back to Ben-Aryeh telling him to “stop fooling around,” and that when he helped to promote Ben-Aryeh it was a unanimous decision with other members of a panel because of his strong credentials.
Liberman did not directly explain why he believed it was acceptable that he “forgot” the matter and failed to report on Ben-Aryeh.
Liberman may eventually not have a choice about resigning. Even with political support and with Weinstein not directly calling for his resignation, Weinstein's condemnation, including in the main case that was closed, was apparent.
Weinstein may not defend Liberman in court if and when a petition is filed with the High Court to compel his resignation.
Liberman had previously committed publicly to resigning if indicted, but he had been referring to the main case, not the Ben- Aryeh matter, which came later.Reuters contributed to this report.