Defense minister Liberman? The plot thickens

Though he said he intended to return to the foreign ministry after the elections, the Yisrael Beytenu head may have had his sights set on the defense job — where a strong performance would cement his prime ministerial credentials. A sharpened indictment has put a halt to those ambitions… for now

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Avigdor Liberman, pictured at the Lebanese border village of Ghajar in 2009 (photo credit: Hamad Almakt / Flash 90)
Avigdor Liberman, pictured at the Lebanese border village of Ghajar in 2009 (photo credit: Hamad Almakt / Flash 90)

Less than a month ago, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s career plan – long intended to culminate with his election as prime minister of Israel – seemed to be unfolding nicely.

He’d recently merged his “sectoral” Yisrael Beytenu party with Benjamin Netanyahu’s “establishment” Likud, bringing himself into the political mainstream. And he’d secured second slot on the joint list — leapfrogging the likes of ex-IDF chief Moshe Ya’alon and rising star Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar to become the prime minister’s undeclared heir apparent.

Better yet, as part of the “Biberman” partnership deal, he’d secured an understanding with Netanyahu that he could have his choice of ministerial positions in the next government.

Publicly, this least diplomatic of politicians had assured the electorate that he liked being foreign minister just fine, and would probably stay at the ministry after the elections as well. Privately, it was apparently vouchsafed to certain privileged journalists, he actually had his sights on the powerful Finance Ministry job. However, it has also been quite credibly suggested to me, Liberman didn’t want Finance and didn’t want Foreign. He intended to take the post of defense minister.

If so, one can well understand the thinking. As defense minister, the Nokdim settlement resident would gain real authority over the cherished settlement enterprise, and day-to-day practical responsibility for interactions with the Palestinian Authority he so derides. Much more importantly, a successful stint in the top security position — quite an elevation for the man who, after immigrating from Moldova in 1978 at age 20, did one year’s “Shlav Bet” reduced army service — would clear his route to the highest position of all.

Danny Ayalon and Avigdor Liberman, at a Knesset event in February 2012 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Danny Ayalon and Avigdor Liberman, at a Knesset event in February 2012 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The undeclared aim to serve as defense minister – which, if true, has been concealed both by Liberman’s repeated talk of a return to the foreign ministry, and by the recent unsourced speculation about a possible return to the defense post by the outgoing minister, Ehud Barak – would help explain Liberman’s bombshell decision to boot Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon off the Yisrael Beytenu Knesset slate. This was a move that was announced to the public only hours before the deadline for submitting the party lists on December 6, having been conveyed by Liberman to a flabbergasted Ayalon in a spectacularly uncomfortable phone call only the day before. (Just a few days earlier, the trusted and trusting deputy had been dispatched by the minister to the US, to help prepare Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Operation Pillar of Defense ceasefire-brokering visit.) If Liberman wasn’t planning on coming back to the Foreign Ministry, he would no longer need the experienced Ayalon at his side, and could rid himself of a popular sidekick who had outlived his usefulness and who might potentially represent a party leadership threat.

Everything might yet pan out to Liberman’s satisfaction. At only 54 – compared to Netanyahu’s 63 – he has plenty of time on his side, and he may still make it all the way to the top. But the road has gotten a lot rockier in the past few weeks. And he has been at least the partial architect of his most recent complications.

The last laugh?

Sure, Liberman is still No. 2 on that joint list. And although Likud-Beytenu is slipping in the polls, Netanyahu is still on course to retain the premiership and lead the next coalition.

But Liberman won’t be sitting alongside him at the cabinet table – certainly not in the early days of the next government, and possibly not for a long time after that.

On December 13, when Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein announced that a long-running investigation into serious corruption allegations against Liberman – career-ending allegations, had they been proven, of illegal business dealings on a grand scale – was being closed for lack of evidence, the foreign minister chose to go on the offensive.

He gave a public account of the circumstances in which a former Israeli ambassador to Belarus, Ze’ev Ben Aryeh, illicitly gave him confidential material in late October 2008 – requests for assistance conveyed via the ambassador from the Israeli legal authorities to their counterparts in Belarus, related to that now-closed major investigation; material potentially helpful to Liberman in grappling with that investigation – that contradicted Ben Aryeh’s own testimony. He denied seeking to reward Ben Aryeh for his illicit actions by advancing the ambassador’s candidacy for a subsequent appointment as ambassador to Latvia. And presenting himself as the victim of a state prosecution system that had spent years relentlessly hounding him, he urged the attorney-general to get the relatively minor matter of his alleged misdeeds in his handling of the Ben Aryeh episode out of the way as soon as possible, and ideally before the January 22 elections.

In the aftermath of that hubristic performance, and amid no little public criticism that the major case against Liberman had been closed – with perplexing reports of four witnesses who had died, disappeared, committed suicide or retracted their testimony – the state prosecution delayed the issuing of its indictment against Liberman in the Ben Aryeh affair, delved deeper into the case, summoned new witnesses, and on Sunday issued a markedly sharper indictment than had been anticipated. Liberman, it alleges, “acted to reward someone who had carried out grave actions on his behalf.”

The chances of Liberman putting the whole affair behind him before voting day have now declined to approximately zero. And the likelihood of a conviction in the case carrying the designation of “moral turpitude” – which could keep Liberman out of public office for years – has risen from approximately zero, though how high is a subject for pointless speculation.

Ayalon, the brusquely discarded sidekick who, it just so happens, headed the Foreign Ministry Appointments Committee that in 2009 recommended Ben Aryeh for his second ambassadorial position, to Latvia, was called in for questioning last week. The indictment (Hebrew) alleges that Liberman summoned Ayalon and told him Ben Aryeh was the man for the job, the minister’s favored appointee among the 10 candidates for the post. The minister allegedly advocated for Ben Aryeh without mentioning the ambassador’s illicit efforts to assist Liberman in the major corruption case, and the obstruction of justice and breach of trust that this involved – offenses for which Ben Aryeh was sentenced to four months’ community service in October, after a plea bargain. Also apparently unmentioned – since the committee duly approved Ben Aryeh’s appointment – was the fact that the foreign ministry’s internal affairs supervisor Victor Harel had issued a scathing report on Ben Aryeh’s dismal performance in his first ambassadorial posting.

Liberman also allegedly worked to ensure Ben Aryeh’s appointment was successfully approved by the relevant ministerial committee and the government in late December 2009. (The appointment was ultimately canceled only after the ambassador’s illegal conduct was exposed “during a routine security check,” the indictment says.)

Liberman, an extremely astute politician, may yet have the last laugh. He might beat the allegations of fraud and breach of trust in the Ben Aryeh affair – or receive only a relatively minor punishment if convicted – and still take his place at Netanyahu’s side sometime in the lifespan of the next government.

But Netanyahu, for all the warmth of the embraces when the two announced their merged list in October, won’t be hugely disappointed if he doesn’t. His motivation for the merger was not primarily to advance Liberman – the former bureau chief from whom he parted ways in 1997 – but, rather, to ensure that he would be heading the biggest faction in the next Knesset and would therefore get the presidential invitation to form the next government. If he secures that goal without Liberman – who doesn’t much like him and by whom, whisper it, he is a little intimidated – then so much the better.

Perhaps the best indicator of how Netanyahu assesses Liberman’s legal prospects – and by extension his political prospects – will lie in how the prime minister, assuming he does prevail on January 22, fills those top cabinet slots. If he staffs all three of the defense, foreign and finance posts with party or coalition allies, the assumption will be that he does not anticipate the imminent return of Liberman. But if Netanyahu retains one of those three top spots for himself – and never mind the stated reason – he will be holding it in safekeeping for an ostensibly vindicated, still more indomitable, Avigdor Liberman.

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