Former foreign minister and current Yisrael Beytenu leader MK Avigdor Lieberman took the stand on Wednesday in what was another milestone in his corruption trial.
Lieberman is charged with fraud and breach of trust over his alleged efforts to promote former Ambassador Ze'ev Ben Aryeh, who in 2008, as Israel's envoy to Belarus, had shared with Lieberman sensitive information on the Israel Police's correspondence with the Belarusian authorities surrounding the latter's business dealings abroad. Ben Aryeh was later convicted of passing on classified information to unauthorized individuals as part of a plea bargain.
Lieberman's testimony marks the beginning of the defense phase. The former minister made his case before the three-judge panel led by the deputy president of the Jerusalem Magistrates' Court, Judge Hagit Mak-Kalmanovich. The prosecution claims that in 2009, just months after Ben Aryeh provided him with the classified information, Lieberman, as a newly appointed foreign minister, actively tried to influence the ministry's Appointments Committee by telling its members, including his deputy at the time, Danny Ayalon, that Ben Aryeh should be appointed as the ambassador to Latvia (by then Ben Aryeh had returned from his first ambassadorship). Lieberman's actions, according to the indictment, were a quid pro quo for Ben Aryeh's deliberate attempt to stifle the police investigation into Lieberman's financial affairs (a case which was ultimately dropped due to a lack of evidence).
Lieberman has pleaded not guilty and has stressed, through his lawyer Jacob Weinroth, that he had "acted within his prerogatives and did not engage in any criminal behavior."
Lieberman told his version of events over his encounter with Ben Aryeh in Belarus, when the former was on an official Knesset visit to Minsk. According to Lieberman, upon realizing that he had been handed a classified document, he got rid of it and he made sure not to exploit its content. Lieberman has repeatedly denied he worked behind the scenes urging the Appointments Committee to promote Ben Aryeh and reward him for the role he played in that incident. Lieberman maintains that he did not disclose his opinion on who should be appointed as ambassador to Latvia when the committee convened to discuss potential ambassadors. Ben Aryeh was ultimately chosen for that post but had to step down before flying to Riga due to the ongoing investigation into the alleged quid pro quo.
"The entire meeting with Ambassador Ben Aryeh in 2008 lasted three to five minutes; he wanted to speak with me privately," Lieberman told the judges on Wednesday. "We exchanged a few pleasantries and then he told me to look at a note inside an envelope. When I saw that it said 'investigation of Avigdor Lieberman' I tore the note and flushed it down the toilet; I told Ben Aryeh this was all rubbish." Lieberman stressed he was not aware of the fact that the note contained sensitive material that had arrived at Ben Aryeh's desk as part of his job as ambassador and therefore he didn't deem it particularly valuable.
During the prosecution phase, Ayalon testified that Lieberman had made it clear that Ben Aryeh was his preferred candidate. Ayalon was a long-time ally of Lieberman and served at his side at the Foreign Ministry but was denied a spot on the Yisrael Beytenu candidate list shortly before the Jan. 22 elections. He has since become one of Lieberman's more vocal critics.
Lieberman attacked Ayalon's claim that he had instructed him to convince the committee members to select Ben Aryeh for the ambassadorship in Latvia, saying, "This never happened, it is all made up." He went on to suggest that Ayalon was disgruntled from having been denied a spot on the Yisrael Beytenu list. "Only after he was kicked out of the party's list did he have a recollection about what took place when he and I met; where was he during the previous two and a half years? Did he testify that he was a law-abiding citizen nine separate times?"
Ayalon and Lieberman traded barbs when the former took the stand several weeks ago. "Lieberman and I do not have a feud; one should recall that this case is called The State of Israel vs. Avigdor Lieberman. This is not Danny Ayalon vs. Avigdor Lieberman. I am even willing to shake his hands right now," Ayalon said. Lieberman, who was seated in the first row very close to the witness stand, interjected, saying, "God forbid, I don't shake hands with frauds and liars."
When asked by the prosecutor how his testimony was affected by Lieberman's decision to end his re-election bid, Ayalon denied he was motivated by vengeance. "This had zero effect; that is not who I am. I don't seek retribution or hold grudges; this does not affect my testimony in court. A trial is about applying the law in a just and equal manner."
If the court convicts Lieberman and rules that his actions constitute moral turpitude (and this does not get overturned by a higher court), Lieberman would have to resign from the Knesset but would be allowed to compete in the next parliamentary election. If, on the other hand, the court adds to the moral turpitude clause a prison term of three months or more, Lieberman would be banned from politics for seven years (including from the government), assuming the verdict and sentence survive appeal.