Former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman took the stand for the first time on Wednesday as the defense stage of his corruption trial got under way in the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court.
Liberman, who was indicted in December on charges of fraud and breach of trust, is accused of illegally using his clout to promote a Foreign Ministry official who had done him a favor in the past.
Entering the tiny, packed chamber, Liberman, as usual, did his best to appear unfazed, bemused and interested only in sports — a staple of his public appearances in the context of criminal investigations. “Everything’s paradise,” he said.
A reporter asked him if he wanted to say anything before the hearing began. “About what? Nadal?” he replied, referring to the Spanish tennis champ, currently competing in the Roland Garros French Open.
Liberman used his time on the stand to once again deny the prosecution’s claims that he used undue pressure to advance the career of Ze’ev Ben Aryeh, who investigators believe tipped Liberman off in a private meeting in 2008 about details of major corruption allegations that were being leveled against him. That corruption case was eventually closed for lack of evidence.
Liberman testified that he was in Belarus in October 2008 for the unveiling of a monument to the Minsk ghetto, when Ben Aryeh, serving as Israel’s ambassador there, approached him in a hotel and gave him a note with details from the investigation.
“The whole incident took 3 to 5 minutes,” including the exchange of pleasantries, said Liberman. Ben Aryeh asked to speak to him alone and gave him an envelope with a note. “It was not an incident that I initiated or was ready for,” Liberman said.
“It struck me like thunder on a clear day,” said the former foreign minster, describing how he went into an adjacent room and flushed the note down the toilet immediately after receiving it. He acted “instinctively,” he said, and forgot about it afterward. “As soon as I saw that it said, ‘Investigation, State of Israel, Liberman,’ it wasn’t interesting.”
Liberman said the incident wasn’t in his consciousness after that, and played no role in Ben Aryeh’s subsequent appointment as ambassador to Latvia.
Police, however, believe Liberman was thankful enough for the note to later support Ben Aryeh’s candidacy for that second ambassadorship, and that the quid pro quo constituted a breach of trust. The Latvia appointment was ultimately canceled, and Ben Aryeh was sentenced last October to four months of community service for obstruction of justice and breach of public trust. As part of a plea bargain, Ben Aryeh admitted passing classified Justice Ministry documents in 2008 to Liberman related to the ongoing investigation into Liberman for allegedly receiving millions of dollars in bribes from businessmen.
Liberman’s testimony, which is to carry on into Thursday, also attempted to cast doubt on the testimony of the state’s key witness, his former deputy Danny Ayalon.
Liberman said he never discussed Ben Aryeh’s appointment with Ayalon, claiming his former deputy was never his confidant.
His relations with Ayalon while the two worked together were “correct,” he said. But he didn’t trust Ayalon. “It was clear that he was an obsessive media chaser,” Liberman said. “I gave an instruction not to allow him access to secret material.”
Liberman noted in his testimony that Ayalon only started talking about Liberman’s alleged pressure after Liberman dismissed him from the Yisrtael Beytenu party.
Ayalon’s testimony earlier this month described how Liberman urged him and other members of the Foreign Ministry appointments committee to name Ben Aryeh as ambassador to Latvia.
Ayalon said the then-foreign minister explicitly spoke 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 testified, “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.
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 left Ayalon off the Knesset slate of the Yisrael Beytenu party ahead of the last election in January, forcing his deputy out of parliament, and his lawyers have argued that Ayalon’s testimony was motivated by a desire for revenge.
In an interview on Israel Radio on Wednesday, Ayalon rejected Liberman’s statements, saying it would be up to the judge to decide which of the two were telling the truth.
Ayalon said it had never been his intention to finger Liberman for a crime, but that when he was approached by the police, as a law-abiding citizen he was obligated to testify.
Presumably referring to Ben Aryeh and other Foreign Ministry witnesses, Ayalon expressed disapproval of government officials who were conveniently plagued by “amnesia” upon entering the witness box.
Ben Aryeh himself was called upon to give testimony last month, 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.
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.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has kept the position of foreign minister vacant so that Liberman can refill it in the event of an acquittal. Liberman has stated that anything other than an acquittal would prompt him to end his political career.
Matti Friedman contributed to this report.