A three-judge panel at the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court unanimously acquitted former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman of fraud and breach of trust charges on Wednesday morning, clearing the way for him to retake his cabinet post. After the decision was handed down, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated Liberman and indicated that the exonerated politician would be re-assuming the position of Israel’s top diplomat in the near future.
Liberman, an MK at the head of the Yisrael Beytenu party, was indicted in December 2012 for illegally using his clout as foreign minister to promote former ambassador to Latvia Ze’ev Ben Aryeh, allegedly as a reward for Ben Aryeh leaking to Liberman details of a separate corruption investigation against him.
The judges said in their decision that Liberman should have informed the Foreign Ministry’s appointments committee of his relationship with Ben Aryeh when Ben Aryeh was considered for the post. However, “there was no proof of a sufficiently severe conflict of interests” to merit a conviction, they said.
“After perusing the evidence on the matter, we’ve ruled that Ben Aryeh’s appointment didn’t constitute a promotion for him; nor was it a ‘springboard’ for other future senior positions,” the judges said in a summary of their decision. “Thus, Ben Aryeh’s appointment befitted his qualifications and abilities, as well as the needs of the Foreign Ministry, which wasn’t blessed with many workers whose Russian [language skills] and expertise in the Russian [political] landscape are comparable to Ben Aryeh’s.”
The judges also ripped into Liberman’s former deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, saying Ayalon’s testimony against his former boss regarding the appointment of Ben Aryeh was “uneven” and may have been driven by personal animus.
“There’s an irreconcilable contiguity between the date of Ayalon’s ouster from Yisrael Beytenu’s Knesset list and the time at which Ayalon chose to turn to police and the media and criticize Liberman over Ben Aryeh’s appointment and other matters, clearly contradicting opinions he had voiced earlier,” they said. “Thus there is, at the very least, reasonable doubt regarding Ayalon’s claims, and [the court] cannot make a criminal conviction of the defendant based on his testimony.”
After the verdict was handed down, Liberman thanked the court and expressed relief over the positive ending to his years-long legal ordeal.
“It’s behind me now,” he said to reporters in the courthouse. “I want to thank my family and my friends who stood beside me… who believed in my innocence and lent me their support. I have no intention of dealing with this episode any more. I’ve put it behind me and I’m focusing on the challenges that await us. That’s it.”
The former — and likely future — foreign minister also thanked his supporters.
“Thank you to those thousands of citizens,” he said. “In the past few days I’ve received thousands of phone calls, emails, faxes with supporting messages… I thank you all.”
Afterward he headed to the Western Wall, where he donned a skullcap and prayer shawl.
Michal Darel, the prosecutor in the case, said the state prosecution would “carefully study the decision” and decide whether to file an appeal. “We respect the decision,” she said.
Netanyahu spoke to Liberman after his acquittal and indicated that he would soon be re-installed as foreign minister, after a hiatus of nearly a year.
“I congratulate you on your unanimous acquittal, and I’m glad that you’re returning to the Israeli cabinet so that we can continue to work together for the benefit of the Israeli people,” Netanyahu told Liberman, according to the Prime Minister’s Office.
Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar indicated the same. “I think Avigdor Liberman will return to the Foreign Ministry and serve as a senior cabinet minister; he’s made clear his preference in the matter,” Sa’ar said in a statement.
Informed sources in the Foreign Ministry confirmed to The Times of Israel that Liberman would indeed be re-assuming his post. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and other politicians in Netanyahu’s coalition also congratulated Liberman.
A guilty verdict with a sentence carrying moral turpitude and a jail term of more than three months would have forced Liberman to leave politics for seven years.
Liberman stepped down from his cabinet position in December 2012 after the state prosecution announced its intention to file an indictment against him over the Ben Aryeh affair. He currently serves as chairman of the Knesset’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Netanyahu has been serving as interim foreign minister pending a decision in Liberman’s trial.
On Wednesday morning, Netanyahu wished Liberman luck. The two have been closely linked politically since their Likud and Yisrael Beytenu parties formed a joint list in the national elections in January. Liberman is also a former director-general of Netanyahu’s Prime Minister’s Office in the late 1990s.
The prosecution claimed that Ben Aryeh handed the former minister a note containing information on a major corruption case against him during a private meeting between the two in a hotel room in Minsk in 2008. Liberman did not dispute the fact of the meeting or the existence of the note, but has testified that as soon as he realized what information the note contained, he discarded it in the hotel room’s bathroom. The former corruption investigation against Liberman that was discussed in the note was closed for lack of evidence.
The three-judges hearing the case were Hagit Kalmanovitch, Eitan Korhauser and Yitzhak Shimoni.
Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.