Two political allies-turned-enemies faced each other in a packed Jerusalem courtroom Thursday, with the career of one of Israel’s most powerful politicians hanging in the balance.
Danny Ayalon, the former deputy foreign minister, testified in the trial of his erstwhile patron, Avigdor Liberman, who faces fraud charges for allegedly granting an ambassadorship to a political crony who improperly showed Liberman classified information on a police corruption investigation in which he was a suspect.
The two were once close. Ayalon, a former diplomat, was Liberman’s number two in the hard-line Yisrael Beytenu party and a regular defender of his boss in the media.
But late last year Liberman unexpectedly booted Ayalon from the party list, effectively ending his political life. Liberman is seen as a canny and ruthless political operator, but the move appeared to have been a mistake when, not long afterward, the spurned deputy became a witness in a trial that could severely complicate or even end Liberman’s own political life.
At times, the convoluted relationship between the two lent Thursday’s hearing at the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court nearly Shakespearean qualities.
Liberman barely acknowledged Ayalon’s presence, and though the men were only paces apart in a crowded court the size of a living room, they did not speak.
On the stand, Ayalon said at one point that he would shake Liberman’s hand. Liberman interjected, “I don’t shake hands with cheaters and liars.”
Upon entering the courtroom Liberman used one of his standard moves when facing legal troubles and reporters — employing a soccer reference to break the tension and demonstrate how little any of this fazes him. “The most dramatic event here is Barcelona’s loss,” he said, referring to the Spanish team’s Champions League defeat to Munich last night. That got a few laughs.
Liberman’s cavalier demeanor might be a pose, but it might also be justified. In a decade and a half of police investigations into his financial and political dealings nothing has stuck to the Moldova-born powerbroker, and his rise has continued unchecked. Beginning from a voter base of immigrants from the Soviet Union and effectively harnessing animosity toward Israel’s Arab minority as a political tool, he has risen to become the second-most powerful person in Israel’s ruling party.
Liberman, who served as foreign minister and hopes to resume that post after the trial, denies he intervened in the appointment of Ze’ev Ben-Aryeh as ambassador to Latvia. Last October, Ben-Aryeh was convicted of obstructing justice and passing information to an unauthorized person, but Liberman — the unauthorized person — claims he was taken aback when Ben-Aryeh gave him the note in question and did not read it. Ben-Aryeh was ambassador to Belarus at the time.
Senior Foreign Ministry officials have testified that they were not pressured to promote Ben-Aryeh.
Ayalon, however, says Liberman told him on two occasions to make sure Ben-Aryeh got the Latvia job. Near the end of one 2009 meeting, he testified, “the appointment of the ambassador to Latvia came up, and he said Ben-Aryeh should be appointed.” Liberman followed up again not long afterward, he said, and the ministry’s director-general and manpower chief both told him Liberman had spoken to them as well.
If Ayalon is telling the truth, Liberman is lying and so are the other two officials, who have denied Liberman intervened. Some observers have questioned whether those officials can speak freely knowing that Liberman — who makes much of loyalty, both national and personal — will be their boss again if he beats the charges.
Complicating Ayalon’s testimony are statements he made while still Liberman’s deputy. In one TV interview from November 2012, anchor Geula Even of Channel 1 asked if Liberman had pushed Ben-Aryeh’s candidacy, and Ayalon said, “I don’t remember anything of the sort.”
The hearing grew tense as Weinroth — one of the country’s top defense lawyers, with an ornery temperament and a legal mind honed by years of Talmud study in a yeshiva as a young man — attacked inconsistencies in Ayalon’s versions of events and the seasoned diplomat parried as if he were defending Israel in a hostile European TV studio.
After the interview was screened in court on Thursday, Ayalon effectively admitted that his statement was not true. He was covering for Liberman, he said, and employing evasive speech of a kind acceptable in politics.
“Of course I said what I said, because no one expects me to incriminate an Israeli foreign minister, with all the implications,” Ayalon said. “It was a diplomatic statement that signaled to Ms. Even to get off the topic.”
During a lengthy and aggressive cross-examination, Liberman’s lawyer, Jacob Weinroth, tried to undermine Ayalon’s credibility and prove he is motivated by a desire to avenge his dismissal. The hearing grew tense as Weinroth — one of the country’s top defense lawyers, with an ornery temperament and a legal mind honed by years of Talmud study in a yeshiva as a young man — attacked inconsistencies in Ayalon’s versions of events and the seasoned diplomat parried as if he were defending Israel in a hostile European TV studio.
Weinroth read a list of compliments Ayalon had once heaped on his former boss: Ayalon, he said, had called Liberman “upstanding” and “reminiscent of Ariel Sharon.”
“It’s true,” Ayalon said, before clarifying what he meant: “It’s true that I said it.”
“Political discourse,” he said, “leads to all kinds of statements.”
At one point Weinroth accused Ayalon of “fabricating a conversation that never happened” in order to implicate Liberman. Ayalon shot back that the charge was “ridiculous,” and continued, “I was in your job for four years, defending the same defendant.”
“You felt humiliated, you felt betrayed, when they told you that you wouldn’t continue in your job,” the attorney charged.
“Are you a psychologist?” Ayalon fired back. (Actually, Weinroth replied, he had studied psychology.)
In one of the more surprising twists in the hearing, the assembled journalists became part of the proceedings.
Weinroth read out several news articles in which Ayalon had spoken about Liberman, accusing him of using the press to try to damage Liberman after his dismissal, and named two Channel 1 reporters and one producer as relevant to the trial. When the attorney read out a transcript of a TV piece on the ambassador affair by Baruch Kra, a reporter for Channel 10 TV, Kra, who was in court wearing jeans and a red T-shirt, called out a few corrections. The lawyers and judges noted his comments. In Kra’s broadcast he had quoted an anonymous member of the ambassador selection committee, and Ayalon admitted in court that it was him.
Shortly after Kra’s piece appeared, the attorney charged, Ayalon called police to distance himself from the articles about the affair because he felt guilty.
“Is it a disgrace to be a source for Baruch Kra?” Ayalon asked.
“It’s a great honor!” Kra called from the back rows, to laughter in the courtroom.
The trial continues, with Liberman slated to testify next week.