The State Prosecution filed an indictment against former Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Sunday, charging him with breach of trust and fraud over his alleged efforts to promote an ambassador who had helped stymie an investigation into his financial dealings.
On Dec. 13, Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein said the state would take Lieberman to court over the incident, while dropping the most serious charges stemming from a much larger investigation into Lieberman’s overseas business transactions. Lieberman resigned from the government shortly after the announcement, but has held on to his Knesset seat.
According to the indictment, in 2008, then-Israeli Ambassador to Belarus Ze'ev Ben Aryeh handed Lieberman an envelope with classified information detailing the Israel Police's correspondence with Belarusian officials regarding Lieberman. After becoming foreign minister in 2009, Lieberman allegedly worked to have Ben Aryeh appointed ambassador to Latvia, and did not report the envelope incident to the government or to the Foreign Ministry Appointments Committee when the two bodies voted to approve Ben Aryeh's new position. Ben Aryeh was later convicted over the incident.
Shortly before the State Prosecution was to officially file an indictment with the Jerusalem Magistrates' Court, the Israeli media reported that the police had not questioned members of the Foreign Ministry Appointments Committee over the influence Lieberman exercised in seeing Ben Aryeh's nomination confirmed. Over the past two weeks, police questioned some of those who sat on the committee, including Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon. Weinstein then became convinced that Lieberman had been more active in seeing Ben Ze'ev appointed than was originally thought. Lieberman allegedly told the committee members to disregard all applicants in favor of Ben Aryeh.
As a result, prosecutors penned a new indictment, which includes the same charges but has a much more damning evidence section and rests heavily on Ayalon as a key witness.
Ayalon told the investigators that Lieberman, as foreign minister in 2009, made it clear that he wanted Ayalon and other members of the committee to award a second ambassadorship to Ben Aryeh, but did not tell them of Ben Aryeh's conduct and the potential illegality of having the minister effectively promote someone who had tried to stymie a police investigation against him.
"To see the appointment approved, the defendant [Lieberman] summoned Ayalon, his deputy, and told him that Ben Aryeh should be appointed ambassador to Latvia under the rationale that the latter was the most qualified [among the other contenders]," the indictment reads. "Ayalon and Ben Aryeh were not close, but based on the defendant's words, and the documents that were presented to the appointments committee, he [Lieberman] made efforts to have Ben Aryeh selected. Lieberman did not tell the members of the committee, including Ayalon, about the incident [of the envelope] with Ben Aryeh."
After Ben Aryeh's actions were exposed, Lieberman claimed he had not asked Ben Aryeh for the information and that he immediately discarded it after realizing what he had been handed.
If Lieberman is convicted and sentenced to 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.
Yair Shamir, the son of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and an ally of Lieberman, said on Saturday that the case against the party leader may not hold water in court. Shamir, who is placed fourth on the joint Likud-Yisrael Beytenu list said "some of the witnesses' accounts support the former foreign minister and contradict Ayalon, who has unfinished business when it comes to Lieberman." Shamir was presumably referring to Lieberman's recent decision to deny Ayalon a place on the party's candidate list for the Knesset, effectively ending his political career.
Shamir went on to attack the State Prosecution.
"After the watered-down indictment was announced [on Dec. 13] Lieberman waived his immunity [which every MK has] on the spot and said he would like to prove his innocence in court," Shamir said, referring to the press conference at which Weinstein announced the indictment over the ambassador affair and the end of the investigation into Lieberman's alleged financial improprieties.
"The State Prosecution's conduct on the matter of the ambassador is problematic, to say the least, and if that is how a [former] minister is treated in Israel, who knows what the average citizen should expect," Shamir said. "We must right what's wrong in the State Prosecution, but no one is willing to tackle this issue because they are intimidated, and there are some things that people dare not say because they fear the State Prosecution."
The State Prosecution has sustained heavy criticism over the years for dragging the investigation into Lieberman's finances on for over a decade. The original draft indictment from 2011, which focused on Lieberman's overseas business transactions, included charges of witness tampering, money laundering and more damning allegations of fraud and breach of trust. The current indictment, while bearing potential political consequences, is a far cry from the original offenses mentioned in the draft indictment.
Ayalon was expected to deliver remarks at a conference for Israeli ambassadors at the Foreign Ministry on Sunday. Analysts expected him to say that he had not acted out of vengeance when he told the police about Lieberman's conduct. Ayalon was expected to say that he considered himself duty-bound to report the former minister's behavior as it was directly related to his role as the head of the appointments committee.