The trial of Avigdor Liberman: A roller coaster

Ze’ev Ben-Aryeh presents testimony contradicting "everything the state wanted to prove" on 1st day of Yisrael Beytenu head's trial.

Liberman trial starts 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Liberman trial starts 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Where does Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman stand after the first roller coaster day of his trial on Thursday? It is hard to say, but his situation is definitely better than it was a day earlier.
In a one sentence recap: Former ambassador to Belarus Ze’ev Ben- Aryeh contradicted everything the state wanted to prove, including on crucial issues, and meticulously laid out explanations which supported Liberman’s story across the board.
No one knew exactly what to expect from Ben-Aryeh in the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court. If you believe the darkest scenario of the state’s case, he has always been and will always be a hard-core supporter of Liberman and of the Russian-Israeli power he embodies – and therefore is in the party leader’s pocket.
In that scenario, Ben-Aryeh taking Liberman’s side was a foregone conclusion. If he was willing to wreck his own Foreign Ministry career by illegally sharing classified information with the politician, he would not sell him out in court.
Anyone focused on the news in the days before the hearing and on Ben-Aryeh’s plea bargain, might have thought the former ambassador would be ready to take shots at Liberman because of reports that the latter had told police the witness was “an idiot” and “weak-minded.”
Ben-Aryeh’s plea bargain deal, however indirectly, may also have tied him into testifying against Liberman.
Now that we know he took Liberman’s side in court, the big question is whether the court will believe Ben-Aryeh’s testimony (and a small portion of his statements to the police), or the lion’s share of his police statements? When Ben-Aryeh illegally showed then-foreign minister Liberman classified investigative material, to what extent did the latter understand what he was seeing? In the debate over whether Liberman fully understood what he was being showed, will the court believe Ben-Aryeh’s testimony to the police that he discussed the information with Liberman for three to five minutes, or his testimony in court that he did not utter a word? All of this is critical. Liberman’s story has been that he had no real idea what Ben-Aryeh showed him, and, therefore, his failure to report it to the authorities is an insignificant omission.
If the court accepts Ben-Aryeh’s in-court testimony, then the only witness to that part of the trial has confirmed Liberman’s story.
If, however, the court prefers Ben-Aryeh’s police testimony, then it will have decided that Liberman is lying, or at least remembering inaccurately. In that case it is much more likely to decide that the politician was not only fully aware of what he saw, but committed a serious omission and breach of trust by not reporting it.
In evaluating Ben-Aryeh’s testimony versus his police statements, the first thing that must be noted is that his testimony was a mess.
He gave varying explanations of why he was changing his story, some of them appearing to be stretch logic.
Were this a civil case, the court would likely accept the majority of his statements to the police and reject his testimony as false and based on loyalty-without-fear-of consequences, since he had already been convicted and sentenced to four months of community service.
On the other hand, in one of his statements to the police, he apparently attempted to retract the assertion that he had conversed with Liberman.
How to read the retraction and whether it was a full or partial retraction was hotly debated in court by the sides for about 10 minutes, highlighting the importance of the point.
The case is criminal, and while not every piece of evidence needs to be measured by the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard (only the case as a whole), sometimes judges impose the standard on themselves anyway, especially in criminal cases connected to high public officials.
Thus, the court could simply say that even if overall the police statements are more logically consistent, there are too many inconsistencies to let the prosecution score points in proving its case by raising the alleged conversation as an issue.
Other noteworthy, but contradictory, hints of the judges’ leanings were their refusal to let the prosecution question Ben-Aryeh as a hostile witness (perhaps they do not consider him logically inconsistent), along with their questioning him about having initialed certain changes in the police transcript. This suggests they may prefer to believe his statements to the police because initialing them would indicate that he had the opportunity to make greater changes at an earlier time, as he tried to in court, but decided against it).
Ultimately, it could be a close call, but the fact that Ben-Aryeh has put his police statements against Liberman in doubt at is a big win for Liberman.