Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Thursday blamed anti-Russian racism for allegations that he was involved in former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s illicit bid to tarnish the reputation of a Ukrainian political leader.
Liberman said speculation that he had collaborated with Manafort to benefit allies of Russia President Vladimir Putin was tinged with “racism” and “prejudice” due to his Soviet origins.
According to US court papers filed recently against Manafort as part of his plea deal with US prosecutors, the consultant admitted to coordinating with a “senior Israeli government official” to wage a campaign against Ukrainian politician Yulia Tymoshenko and her supporters, designed to benefit Manafort’s client, then-Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and the pro-Russian Party of Regions, and pressure the Obama administration to turn against her.
Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party had at the time allied with Svoboda, or Freedom, party, widely considered anti-Semitic. As part of his plan Manafort said he secretly collaborated with the “senior Israeli” in October 2012 to issue a statement censuring Tymoshenko’s party. Manafort would later use the Israeli statement to lobby US Jewish groups against a US “cabinet official” who had supported Tymoshenko.
The Foreign Ministry issued a statement (Russian text) to that effect in October of 2012, when it was under Liberman, giving rise to speculation that he was the unnamed official.
“I didn’t put out any statement,” Liberman told Army Radio, alluding to actions by lower-level officials. “The Foreign Ministry automatically responds to any expression of anti-Semitism.”
“The ministry spokesman put out a statement, just as it has put out numerous similar statements on Austria’s Freedom Party and recent legislation in Poland. The Foreign Ministry automatically responds to any expression of anti-Semitism,” Liberman added.
He said he’d asked the Justice Ministry to contact the US Justice Department and find out the name of the official in question.
Former Meretz party leader Zehava Galon on Sunday called for an investigation into who the senior Israeli was and hinted that it could be Liberman.
Liberman, though he denied involvement, also claimed that “61 Knesset members signed a petition at the time against that party, the Freedom party, and one of the signatures is Zehava Galon’s.”
The minister also dismissed comments by his former deputy at the Foreign Ministry Danny Ayalon, who called for authorities to investigate the case and described the ministry’s statement as “strange.”
Ayalon, once a member of Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party, later had a falling out with his boss and testified against him on corruption allegations of which Liberman was eventually acquitted.
“I very much suggest that anyone who wants to examine the trustworthiness of my former deputy have a look at the verdict of three judges who wrote explicitly what they thought of his trustworthiness and integrity,” Liberman said. “Even if he offered you a fourth-hand car as a gift I wouldn’t recommend you accept.”
Of Manafort himself, Liberman said: “I’ve heard the name. I’ve never met the man, I don’t know him, I’ve never spoken to him and beyond that there’s nothing interesting.”
He added that the claims he was somehow sidling up to Putin and his allies was “part of the same prejudices, the same attempts at mudslinging…with a racist undertone, a political undertone, just because of my background…I once thought this nonsense was in the past, but I’ve once again been shown that it is the opposite.”
Ayalon on Monday said he was unconvinced by Liberman’s denials.
“I really hope it wasn’t him and that they release the name. The denial refers to knowing Manafort. You don’t even need to mention Manafort, Putin could have worked through a lot of middle ranks. The statement is odd in that respect. If someone truly wants to convince the public it wasn’t him, come and show the bureau’s work that preceded that statement,” Ayalon said.
Labor party leader Avi Gabbay has also urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to immediately launch an investigation to unmask the senior government figure involved.
“Such an incident cannot pass unattended, and we can’t be complacent if in the service of the state there is someone who is acting on behalf of foreign bodies, whether they are paid or not paid,” Gabbay wrote.
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.