Former deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon called Monday for authorities to investigate the identity of the Israeli who, according to US court papers, coordinated with Paul Manafort to tarnish the reputation of a Ukrainian political leader fighting Russia’s influence in the country.
Hebrew media reports have suggested that the “senior Israeli government official” named in the court documents was Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman.
Speaking with Haaretz, Ayalon, who served at the time as Liberman’s deputy, described the incident as “strange” and said Israelis deserved to know whether it was linked to the charges against Manafort.
“This is of interest to the Israeli public and to [Israel’s] security. The Israeli government has the means to obtain the information and know who is involved,” Ayalon said. “It’s true that according to American court protocol the names of those who are not charged are not published, but this case has nothing to do with American court rulings because this is not an American citizen.”
At the Friday hearing, prosecutors detailed Manafort’s political consulting and lobbying work on behalf of Viktor 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, Yulia 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 had 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 [US] 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.
As part of his plan Manafort said he secretly collaborated with a “senior Israeli” in October 2012 to issue a statement censuring Tymoshenko’s party for allying with an anti-Semitic party. Manafort would later use the Israeli statement to lobby US Jewish groups against the “cabinet official.”
The Foreign Ministry issued a statement (Russian text) to that effect that in October of 2012, when it was under Liberman.
Responding to reports suggesting that the Foreign Ministry statement was part of the campaign, Ayalon said he had previously not been aware of its release at all, and admitted that it was “a very strange thing,” not least because it was only put out in Russian.
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 has reportedly called on the US administration to issue a statement saying 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.
Ayalon, a former close confidant of Liberman in the Yisrael Beytenu party who later fell out with the party leader and was dropped from the party’s Knesset slate, said he was unconvinced by the denial.
“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.
On Sunday, Labor party leader Avi Gabbay 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.
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.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.