It wasn’t me: Liberman said to ask US to name senior Israeli who aided Manafort

Defense minister reportedly wants US to clarify he was not the unnamed government official in scheme against Ukrainian politician, threatens to sue media outlets that malign him

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks in the Jerusalem International Convention Center (ICC) on September 3, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks in the Jerusalem International Convention Center (ICC) on September 3, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Sunday reportedly urged Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked to officially ask the American government to name the “senior Israeli government official” who, according to US court papers, coordinated with Paul Manafort to tarnish the reputation of a Ukrainian political leader via allegations of anti-Semitism.

The campaign against Ukrainian politician Yulia Tymoshenko and her supporters was designed to benefit Manafort’s client, the then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and the pro-Russian Party of Regions, and  pressure the Obama administration to turn against her, according to US court documents filed against Manafort on Friday.

The indictment against Manafort did not name the Israeli official, but speculation in Israel has mounted that it could have been Liberman. The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem issued a statement noting that Tymoshenko’s party had allied with an anti-Semitic party in October 2012 (Russian text). Liberman was foreign minister at the time.

Liberman vehemently denied any connection to Manafort. “The defense minister does not know Manafort, has never met him or even spoken to him,” a statement from his office said.

Liberman reportedly called on the US administration to issue a statement stating that he was not the senior official involved. He also hinted that he would be prepared to sue the media if it defamed him on the issue, Hadashot news reported on Sunday, without sourcing the statement.

The Foreign Ministry backed Liberman, confirming on Sunday that it had issued the statement on its website in 2012 describing anti-Semitic concerns about Tymoshenko’s party, while stressing the statement was not out of the ordinary, Hadashot television news reported.

Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon speaks to reporters ahead of a Security Council meeting on May 30, 2018 (Courtesy)

Hadashot quoted sources close to Liberman noting that Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, who at that time was a Likud MK and the chairman of the Knesset’s Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Committee, wrote a letter to the Ukrainian ambassador in Israel demanding the eradication of Muslim terror against Jews in his country. It also said several MKs six months later signed a petition on the matter, and that among the signatories was left-wing MK Dov Khenin, currently of the Joint (Arab) List.

Ukrainian presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko is welcomed by supporters during a rally in Priluki, Ukraine, Thursday, May 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Earlier in the day, Labor party leader Avi Gabbay urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to immediately launch an investigation to unmask the senior government figure involved.

Gabbay wrote that according to a Friday indictment against US President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, “someone or other in the Israeli Foreign Ministry was used to play into the hands of Manafort, acted and behaved on his behalf, which led him to put out official statements” in order to advance Manafort’s foreign interests.

“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.

Head of the Zionist Union political party Avi Gabbay leads a faction meeting in the Knesset in Jerusalem on March 12, 2018. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Manafort pleaded Friday guilty to one count of conspiracy against the United States and another count of obstruction of justice to avert a second trial on money laundering and illegal lobbying charges. He also agreed to cooperate with the special counsel’s Russia investigation.

“As the person who in practice is entrusted with the foreign service and the protection and security of the country against espionage from a foreign company, it is required of you to immediately begin a process of checking and investigation, to clarify if there is a foreign agent in the civil service and if indeed he used the Israeli foreign service for the benefit of advancing foreign interests,” Gabbay wrote.

Gabbay said Netanyahu should publicly announce the opening of the investigation and its findings.

Meretz party chairwoman Zehava Galon seen during a finance committee meeting atthe Knesset on September 11, 2017. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Former leader of the Meretz party MK Zehava Galon tweeted that she had asked the attorney general to urgently open an criminal investigation against the “senior Israeli” who had conspired with Paul Manafort. “Interesting who it might be?”

At the Friday hearing, prosecutors detailed Manafort’s political consulting and lobbying work on behalf of Yanukovych and the pro-Russian Party of Regions, which included the allegations that a senior Israeli government figure helped with the anti-Semitism smear campaign against Yanukovych’s opponent, Tymoshenko.

The document showed that in October 2012, Manafort hatched a scheme to tarnish Tymoshenko’s reputation, by spreading the story that Tymoshenko’s supporters were encouraging anti-Semitism and allied with an anti-Semitic party.

By doing so, he hoped to get Jewish supporters of then-US president Barack Obama to “put pressure on the administration to disavow Tymoshenko and support Yanukovych,” the court documents said.

Manafort spread stories that “a senior cabinet official (who had been a prominent critic of Yanukovych’s treatment of Tymoshenko) was supporting anti-Semitism because the official supported Tymoshenko, who in turn had formed a political alliance with a Ukraine party that espoused anti-Semitic views,” the documents said.

Paul Manafort arrives for a hearing at US District Court in Washington, DC, on June 15, 2018. (AFP Photo/ Brendan Smialowski)

“Manafort coordinated privately with a senior Israeli government official to issue a written statement publicizing this story,” the indictment said. “Manafort then, with secret advance knowledge of that Israeli statement, worked to disseminate this story in the United States.”

It quoted him as writing to an associate: “I have someone pushing it at the NY Post. Bada bing bada boom.”

Manafort sought to stir up “Obama Jews” — an apparent reference to Jewish supporters of Obama — who would in turn “put pressure” on the Obama administration to disavow her, to Yanukovych’s advantage.

Prosecutors say he collaborated with an Israeli official to spread the story that Tymoshenko was allied with anti-Semitic causes to make the administration believe “the Jewish community will take this out on Obama on election day if he does nothing.” The US presidential elections were held the next month.

Manafort also allegedly disseminated stories according to which Tymoshenko had solicited murders.

Ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych gestures during an interview with The Associated Press, in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, Wednesday, April 2, 2014. (photo credit: AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

Yanukovych served as president of Ukraine from 2010 until his ouster in the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, amid unrest over his push to take the Eastern European country back into the Russian sphere of influence and away from the EU. Yanukovych, who is thought to be close to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, now lives in exile in Russia. Within days of Yanukovych fleeing, Russia took military action that ultimately led to the annexation of the Crimea Peninsula from Ukraine.

Pleading guilty allows Manafort to avoid a trial that was expected to last at least three weeks and posed the potential of adding years to the time he is already facing under federal sentencing guidelines from his conviction in Virginia.

A jury in that earlier trial found Manafort guilty of eight counts of tax evasion, failing to report foreign bank accounts and bank fraud. Jurors deadlocked on 10 other counts.

In the current Washington case, prosecutors detailed Manafort’s political consulting and lobbying work.

Prosecutors say that Manafort directed a large-scale lobbying operation in the US for Ukrainian interests without registering with the Justice Department, as required by the federal Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA. Manafort was accused of concealing from the IRS tens of millions of dollars in proceeds from his Ukrainian patrons and conspiring to launder that money through offshore accounts in Cyprus and elsewhere.

Members of the media follow attorney Kevin Downing, center, with the defense team for Paul Manafort, leaving federal court in Washington, DC, September 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Manafort had denied the allegations and pleaded not guilty. Even after his indictment last October, though, prosecutors say he continued to commit crimes by tampering with witnesses. The discovery of his witness contacts led to a superseding indictment in June and Manafort’s jailing ahead of his trial.

In addition to the witness tampering counts, Manafort had been formally charged with acting as an unregistered foreign agent, conspiring to launder money and lying to the FBI and Justice Department about the nature of his work. Court papers indicated that he could have faced between 15 and 19 1/2 years in prison under federal guidelines.

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