Israeli ex-minister denies fraud charges
Avigdor Lieberman (left), former Israeli foreign minister, arrives at Jerusalems magistrate court yesterday. photograph: baz ratner/reuters
The political future of former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman hangs in the balance after he pleaded innocent on the opening day of a corruption trial in Jerusalem.
Mr Lieberman has been charged with fraud and breach of trust over his involvement in the appointment of a former Israeli ambassador to Belarus, Zeev Ben Arieh, as Israel’s ambassador to Latvia, in return for information that Mr Ben Arieh gave Mr Lieberman about the police investigation into Mr Lieberman’s affairs.
Mr Lieberman is seeking a full acquittal or, at least, a conviction that does not carry the stain of moral turpitude, which would bar him from serving not only as a cabinet minister but as a member of the Knesset parliament.
Mr Lieberman remains leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party , and number two on the Likud Beiteinu joint list, which is headed by prime minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu.
Mr Netanyahu has promised to keep the foreign affairs portfolio in the new government available for Mr Lieberman, pending the outcome of the trial.
The indictment alleges that Mr Lieberman worked to advance Mr Ben Arieh’s appointment as ambassador to Latvia by influencing the members of the foreign ministry’s appointments committee.
The key prosecution witness in the trial is likely to be former deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon, who served as the chairman of the foreign ministry’s appointments committee.
Mr Ayalon was unceremoniously kicked off the Yisrael Beiteinu slate by Mr Lieberman just before last month’s election, a move Mr Lieberman may come to regret.
Mr Ayalon told detectives Mr Lieberman told him that Mr Ben Arieh should be appointed the Israeli ambassador to Latvia.
At the opening of the trial at the Jerusalem magistrates’ court, Mr Lieberman entered a plea of not guilty on all counts.
The defence argued that “the defendant did not exceed his authority in any way, nor did he commit any criminal offence”.
The State alleged that Mr Lieberman’s interference in the appointment of the ambassador constituted abuse of authority and amounted to “payment” for the leak over the police investigation.
The indictment was revised to exclude criminal charges that were part of a much more serious original investigation against Mr Lieberman, including counts of alleged fraud, money laundering and fraudulently obtaining benefits.
However, state prosecutors promised to vigorously pursue a moral turpitude conviction, which – if obtained – would bar Mr Lieberman from political and public life for seven years.
Labour party Knesset member Merav Michaeli warned that Mr Netanyahu’s decision to keep the position of foreign minister open for Mr Lieberman will harm the legal proceedings, as most of the witnesses are foreign ministry employees.
“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.”