Alleged wrongdoing mars diplomacy

The local news media say that the attorney-general and the state prosecution are about to press charges against him.

Lieberman 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Lieberman 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman must have steel nerves.
For the past decade at least, the law enforcement authorities reportedly have suspected him of money-laundering, maintenance of secret or camouflaged foreign bank accounts, and conducting bogus business activities abroad. The local news media say that the attorney-general and the state prosecution are about to press charges against him. If that happens, he will have to resign his post, but this threat to his career and reputation seems to be consigned to newsprint and airwaves rather than to reality.
It could be that Liberman’s role as leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party is too important to the survival of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition government for him to be sidelined by legal proceedings. Even the recent expansion of its majority to 94 out of the Knesset’s 120 seats did not make him expendable.
The case against Liberman, which was spelled out in shocking detail by Gidi Weitz in Haaretz’s weekly magazine section last Friday, alleges financial shenanigans of a seemingly diabolical nature. For example, he reportedly assigned his former driver to be one of his front men (with virtual executive status) insofar as his international business operations were concerned. Liberman also is said to have authorized his daughter to open and operate his bank accounts in Cyprus.
This information and much more presumably was obtained by Weitz from sources in the law enforcement establishment, perhaps as a prelude to its presentation in court.
One of the highest eyebrow-raisers is the foreign minister’s reported relationship with an Austrian businessman by the name of Martin Schlaf.
The latter is described by Weitz as the main source of funding for Liberman’s political party. If this were true, it would be tantamount to foreign involvement in Israel’s domestic political process.
Liberman has two trump cards to play in this strange context.
His creation of Yisrael Beytenu and its entry into the Likud-led coalition assure a hard line on the territorial issue. This is because Yisrael Beytenu” opposes the withdrawal of Israeli forces and Jewish settlers from the West Bank and assures unswerving support for Netanyahu’s rightist stance by the sizable number of former Soviet Jews who support it. But politics is one thing and diplomatic reality is another.
Whoever serves as Israel’s foreign minister should be someone whose personal behavior, manner of speech and ability to explain the nation’s foreign policy to the international community are exemplary. This cannot be said about a person who has been under police investigation for 10 years, and who expresses the most militant and least compromising views about the Israeli-Palestinian problem even while on diplomatic missions abroad.
Liberman’s native tongue, Russian, is an asset, but his ability speak in English is far from being perfect and has no knowledge whatsoever of French or German.
His official itineraries reflect this handicap. He rarely shows up in Washington and his trips to London and Paris are few and far between.
The fact that his public statements while abroad often run counter to the policies of his foreign hosts also is a diplomatic handicap. Traditionally, Israel’s foreign ministers have represented the most moderate views of the party or coalition in power rather than those of its extremist fringe.
Much more disturbing than the political and diplomatic aspects of Liberman’s public career – his climb up the ladder of success from new immigrant to nighttime bouncer to government official to various cabinet ministries to the prestigious post of foreign minister can be matched or even surpassed only by his presumed financial and business acumen.
One can conclude from Weitz’s findings from the extensive data leaked to him that Liberman is a very rich man in his own right. His bank account(s) in Cyprus, deals closed in conjunction with Schlaf and business operations in the Caribbean suggest this. His income tax file presumably reflects this as well. However, unlike in the United States, where the taxes paid or unpaid by public figures are accessible to journalists, in Israel they are not.
Liberman’s Foreign Ministry colleagues credit him with having nurtured and bolstered Israel’s relationship with Cyprus, Greece and the Balkan states. This was highlighted by the unusually warm official welcome he received during his last visit to Nicosia.
The effort he invested in this strategic region was prompted by Turkey’s drastic transformation from a friendly neighbor to a hotbed of anti- Israel hostility.
Liberman urged his ministry’s seasoned diplomats to reach out to the Greek Cypriots, mainland Greeks, Albanians and the former Yugoslavs (Serbs, Croats, Bosnians and Montenegrins. The response evidently has been positive and the prospects for closer ties in the years to come have been encouraging.
Nevertheless, the constant threat of legal action by Israel’s state prosecution is an impediment.
The international news media have been following the prolonged standoff between Liberman and Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein. Their coverage has not enhanced Liberman’s image as Israel’s foremost diplomatic representative and spokesman.
It is conceivable that his survival is largely due to the high priority Prime Minister Netanyahu gives to keeping his parliamentary coalition stable and intact.
The likelihood that Haaretz’s Weitz was the beneficiary of a premeditated leak from the bulging Liberman file compiled by the police and accessible to the state prosecutors suggests that these legally influential parties are anxious to have Liberman face his accusers in a court of law.
For the time being, it seems that only one man other than Liberman himself – the prime minister – is blocking them. This situation cannot last forever, though, and the more suspense injected into it by seemingly interminable delays the more politically explosive it may turn out to be when Liberman’s day in court finally comes.
The writer is a veteran foreign correspondent.