Former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman stood before a three-judge panel at the Jerusalem Magistrates’ Court on Sunday at the start of a trial on charges of fraud and breach of trust that threatens to end the career of one of the most powerful, and controversial, Israeli politicians of the past decade.
Liberman remained silent throughout the brief proceedings in which his defense team responded to the state’s indictment by denying all charges. The judges then set four dates for the next court sessions, to be held on April 25, April 30, May 2, and May 7, suggesting that there will no rapid resolution of the case.
Liberman, who is heads the Yisrael Beytenu Knesset faction, immediately left the room and the court without giving any comment to waiting media.
The charges stem from an incident in which Liberman allegedly received classified Justice Ministry documents from former ambassador to Belarus Ze’ev Ben Aryeh. The documents related to a previous investigation into fraud and money-laundering charges.
Those more severe charges were dropped in early December due to lack of evidence.
Liberman’s defense attorney, Yaakov Weinroth, told reporters after the session that he was satisfied with the trial schedule and that he hoped the case would be closed quickly.
His client has made it clear that he intends to return to his former position in the Foreign Ministry. Media reports claim that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is keeping the post open until the trial ends. Liberman has said his Yisrael Beytenu party will retain the portfolio in the next government, though he cannot serve as a minister while on trial.
MK Merav Michaeli (Labor) said the threat of seeing their former boss return to his position may influence Foreign Ministry employees expected to testify in Liberman’s trial.
“The assurance that the Foreign Ministry is being kept for Liberman is likely to interfere with the legal proceedings,” she said in an interview with Army Radio on Sunday. “People who are due to testify against the person who was their minister and who hear that he is about to return are put in an impossible situation; they are facing a real threat that even if he can’t fire them because they are civil servants, he can certainly cause them trouble or make things difficult.”
Liberman stepped down as foreign minister on December 14, after the state attorney announced his intention to file an indictment against him over what then appeared to be relatively minor allegations of breach of trust and fraud. But on December 30, he was indicted on sharpened charges.
The number two on the Likud-Beytenu joint list had hoped to wrap up the proceedings before the January 22 elections, but negotiations between his defense team and the state prosecutor did not prove fruitful in moving up the trial.
Under Israeli law, a politician can be forced from public service for years if his or her conviction carries a designation of “moral turpitude” plus a jail or community service sentence.
Liberman has stated that, if convicted, even without moral turpitude and a jail sentence, he would quit politics entirely.
According to the indictment, while Liberman served as foreign minister, he explicitly instructed his then-deputy Danny Ayalon to push the ministry’s appointments committee to name Ben Aryeh as ambassador to Latvia; Ayalon did not know Ben Aryeh personally.
The deputy foreign minister is expected to be the key witness for the prosecution in his former boss’s trial.
Liberman has denied that his support for Ben Aryeh’s Latvia ambassadorship candidacy was any kind of reward for Ben Aryeh’s assistance to him in the major legal battle, noting that the ambassador was “head and shoulders” above other candidates for the Latvia job and that it would have been wrong to punish Ben Aryeh over the envelope incident by seeking to block such an appointment. He said Ben Aryeh, who was convicted in a plea bargain for giving Liberman the envelope of classified documentation, had been wrong to do so, and claimed he himself immediately threw the material away.
Ayalon was unceremoniously omitted from Yisrael Beytenu’s Knesset election roster in early December, though a reason was never made public. After the resignation of Liberman, Ayalon stayed on as interim deputy foreign minister, working directly under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
When Ayalon’s position as a witness came to light, the bad blood bubbled to the surface, and the two men began to publicly trade scathing recriminations.
The latest volley came on Saturday, when Ayalon charged that Liberman was unfit to be foreign minister because he had “failed to gain the confidence of the international community.”
He also spoke of the so-called ambassador affair, saying that he believed the attempted appointment of Ben Aryeh as ambassador to Latvia – initially approved but subsequently cancelled – was proper. Ayalon claimed, however, that he was able to thwart several improper appointments that Liberman had attempted to push through.
He told attendees at a cultural event near Kfar Saba, in central Israel, that he had been completely forthcoming with police and that he would present all the information to the court.
Saturday’s comments came a week after Ayalon lambasted Liberman for undiplomatic behavior as foreign minister that had rendered him a “leper” in the international community. Liberman dismissed that criticism, saying that Ayalon was only attacking him because he had rightly booted Ayalon off the Yisrael Beytenu Knesset slate, and asserting that Ayalon had lost the trust of previous foreign ministers too.