The key witness in the breach of trust trial against former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman, his former deputy Danny Ayalon, took the stand Thursday and gave incriminating testimony, confirming that while serving in the Foreign Ministry, Liberman had acted to promote a man who had done him a favor.
The former deputy foreign minister described how Liberman urged him and other members of the Foreign Ministry appointments committee to name Ze’ev Ben Aryeh as ambassador to Latvia. According to allegations, Liberman had decided to promote Ben Aryeh after the ambassador gave him a heads-up about details of major corruption allegations that were being leveled against him. That corruption case was eventually closed for lack of evidence.
Contradicting Liberman’s denial of the account, Ayalon said at the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court that the then-foreign minister had explicitly spoken to him not once but twice and told him to appoint Ben Aryeh. Near the end of one meeting between the two men in 2009, Ayalon said, “the appointment of the ambassador to Latvia came up, and he said Ben Aryeh should be appointed.” Liberman later followed up on the request a second time, he added.
“I was in his office. We were discussing diplomatic issues, and at the end of the meeting he said that Ben Aryeh should fill the post of ambassador in Riga, Latvia,” he stated.
Two other senior officials — the director of the ministry and the manpower chief — also told Ayalon that Liberman had spoken to them about the appointment, Ayalon said.
Liberman and Ayalon have been engaged in a heated public war of words since it was announced that the latter would testify. In court, Liberman barely acknowledged Ayalon, and was dismissive of the impact his former deputy’s testimony could have on his shot at acquittal. “The most dramatic event is Barcelona’s loss,” Liberman said — a reference to the Catalan soccer powerhouse that was ousted from Champions League play Wednesday night by Bayern Munich.
“I’ve never been in court before, but there’s always a first time,” Ayalon said to reporters as he entered the courthouse.
The two onetime allies stood a few paces apart in the packed courtroom, visibly uncomfortable, not looking at each other.
Ben Aryeh was called upon to give testimony last week, but on the stand he repeatedly said that he did not remember specific details about his conversations with Liberman, prompting the prosecution to ask the court to declare him a hostile witness and admit his previous police statement as testimony, a request the judges declined.
Two other witnesses — the former director of the Foreign Ministry, Yossi Gal, and the former head of human resources, Simon Roded — who both currently serve as ambassadors, testified that Liberman had not given them any instructions to push the Ben Aryeh appointment.
Ayalon told the Maariv daily that, unlike Ben Aryeh and other witnesses, he would not disappoint the prosecution. “At the end of the day, there is only one truth and the court will hear it,” he said. “My memory will not fail me.”
In police interviews about the affair, Ayalon said that Liberman had leaned on him to support Ben Aryeh’s ambassadorship. However, the court screened a recording of a television interview that he gave to Channel 1 in November 2012 in which he said he didn’t remember Liberman speaking to him about the appointment.
On Thursday, Ayalon said his comments during the interview were an attempt to “be diplomatic.”
Liberman left Ayalon off the Knesset slate of the Yisrael Beytenu party ahead of the last election, forcing his deputy out of parliament.
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 in the Ben Aryeh affair. But on December 30, Liberman was indicted on sharpened charges.
In transcripts of investigations from 2010, Liberman related that he received a note from his subordinate Ben Aryeh, at the time ambassador to Belarus, informing his boss of a corruption investigation being carried out against Liberman. Liberman admitted that he received the note at a meeting in a hotel in Belarus, but said that he disregarded it and immediately disposed of it.
“I opened it [the note], saw it, said ‘thanks’ and immediately went to the restrooms and threw it in the water,” said Liberman. “It was insignificant, not serious.”
Liberman also described how he later told fellow Yisrael Beytenu party member Faina Kirshenbaum that Ben Aryeh was “an idiot” and predicted that “he will cause trouble for both of us.”
Police, however, believe Liberman was thankful enough for the note to later support Ben Aryeh’s candidacy for a different ambassadorship, to Latvia, and that the quid pro quo constituted a breach of trust.
Allegations of money-laundering and other crimes by Liberman were dropped in December 2012 due to lack of evidence, but he was indicted for breach of trust and fraud after it emerged that he had allegedly used his influence to pressure a Foreign Ministry committee to appoint Ben Aryeh ambassador to Latvia. Liberman denied he had taken any actions on Ben Aryeh’s behalf.
Liberman resigned his position as foreign minister — though he maintains his Knesset membership — following the indictment in order to focus on his defense for the trial, and in February he briefly appeared in court to deny all charges against him. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised to keep the position of foreign minister vacant so that Liberman can refill it in the case of an acquittal. Liberman has stated that anything other than acquittal would prompt him to end his political career.
Matti Friedman contributed from the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court.