Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein's office said it would file a harsher indictment against Yisrael Beytenu Chairman and former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Thursday. The decision comes several days after the investigation into the alleged corruption case was re-opened in the wake of new revelations.
Foreign Ministry officials who were questioned by police last week have shed light on Lieberman's alleged role in appointing Ze'ev Ben Aryeh as the ambassador to Latvia in 2009, shortly after the ambassador met Lieberman and disclosed sensitive information about a police investigation into Lieberman’s financial affairs. Ben Aryeh, who at the time was the Israeli ambassador to Belarus, handed Lieberman an envelope with the classified information when the latter was on a visit to Minsk in 2008. It detailed correspondence between the Israel Police and Belarusian law enforcement officials over Lieberman’s ties to various individuals. Lieberman claimed he was not aware of the contents of the envelope before he opened it and threw it away immediately after he realized what he had been given.
The new indictment includes the same charges as before – fraud and breach of trust – although the most recent questioning of the Foreign Ministry officials has apparently prompted the State Prosecution to rewrite the section on Ben Aryeh's appointment. Prosecutors will try to portray Lieberman as being actively involved in seeing Ben Aryeh's ambassadorship confirmed to reward him for disclosing the sensitive information. According to the indictment, Lieberman also violated the law by failing to report Ben Aryeh's actions when his appointment came up for a vote at the Foreign Ministry and the cabinet. Army radio reported Thursday that the police now believes it has a piece of evidence proving Lieberman had met with Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon ahead of the vote and told him Ben Aryeh should be appointed.
The investigation into Lieberman's financial dealings, which spanned more than a decade and focused on suspected illicit transactions, was closed a few weeks ago. Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein initially sought to indict Lieberman for money laundering, witness tampering and major counts of breach of trust and fraud, and even released a draft indictment about a year ago.
But on Dec. 13, citing a lack of sufficient evidence, he said he would not pursue the case. Weinstein said Lieberman would still stand trial for less serious offenses over his handling of the information he received from Ben Aryeh and the alleged reward Lieberman may have given Ben Aryeh by sending him to Latvia. Ben Aryeh's appointment was eventually nullified and he was recently convicted of obstruction of justice and the dissemination of classified information to unauthorized individuals.
Last week, Weinstein said the letter of indictment would be officially filed only after police questioned the Foreign Ministry officials who had been on the committee that promoted Ben Aryeh, including the committee’s head, Ayalon, who was Lieberman's deputy at the time. On Tuesday night, investigators confronted Lieberman with the new information when he was interrogated under caution. According to an Army Radio report on Thursday, Ayalon told police that Lieberman was actively involved in seeing Ben Aryeh's promotion approved.
Shortly after Weinstein announced his decision, Lieberman resigned as foreign minister and waived his legal immunity, saying he would like to have a quick trial that would vindicate him so that he could re-enter the government after the Jan. 22 elections. If Lieberman is convicted and sentenced for more than three months in prison he would have to stay out of politics for seven years, as the Basic Law: Knesset attaches the designation of "moral turpitude" to such a sentence. The ban from politics takes effect only after all appeals have been exhausted, which means Lieberman could continue serving as an MK for some time to come.
The revised indictment makes it increasingly likely the state will insist on the moral turpitude clause and the harsh sentence if Lieberman is convicted. Lieberman will likely maintain his innocence, as he has done throughout the investigation. He has claimed he did not violate the law but may have possibly shirked some of his duties by failing to report his interaction with Ben Aryeh, saying he did not want to make an issue out of one "silly mistake" on the part of the former ambassador. According to Lieberman's defense team, the former minister's actions may merit disciplinary action but fall short of the criminal behavior mentioned in the indictment.
Lieberman initially sought a plea bargain that would allow a quick return to the government after the Jan. 22 elections, but after Weinstein said he would insist on a "moral turpitude" clause the talks between the two sides faltered. On Wednesday, legal sources said that there was virtually no chance of an out-of-court settlement because Weinstein was refusing to back down from his insistence on a harsh sentence that would send Lieberman into political exile.
The Foreign Ministry's workers’ union said Wednesday that it would ask State Comptroller Yosef Shapira to look into recent diplomatic appointments in the ministry, and specifically whether there had been any misconduct by the Foreign Ministry's Appointments Committee. The union has long claimed that the composition of the committee gives senior management an automatic majority when there is a vote on new appointees. They say this violates proper norms and flouts the recommendations listed in past State Comptroller reports. According to the union, the committee's protocols are not properly recorded, which makes its deliberations much harder to scrutinize.
MK Eitan Cabel, who is in charge of the Labor party's messaging in the elections, has called on Lieberman to put his political career on hold until the corruption case is resolved, saying it is inappropriate for the former minister to appear in Likud-Yisrael Beytenu events as long as he has a cloud of suspicion hanging over his head.