Likud demands corruption probe into Liberman after he backs Netanyahu ouster

Former defense minister issues mocking statement consisting of laughing emojis after Likud asks attorney general to expand Yisrael Beytenu investigation to include him

Head of the Israel Beyteinu party Avigdor Liberman speaks with the media during a faction meeting in the Knesset on November 25, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Head of the Israel Beyteinu party Avigdor Liberman speaks with the media during a faction meeting in the Knesset on November 25, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The Likud party on Thursday called for a probe of Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman after he announced earlier in the day that he would support legislation that could prevent Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu from becoming prime minister. Liberman is also intending to endorse Blue and White leader Benny Gantz for the prime ministership, according to Hebrew media reports Thursday that he neither confirmed nor denied.

Likud officials formally asked Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to open a corruption investigation into Liberman for his alleged role in the “Yisrael Beytenu affair.”

The affair, dubbed by police “Case 242,” involved a sprawling three-year corruption investigation of several Yisrael Beytenu officials. It was one of the most far-reaching public corruption cases in Israel’s history, and revealed allegations of a widespread kickback scheme involving national and local politicians, as well as non-governmental organizations and private firms.

No evidence of criminal wrongdoing by Liberman was ever found in the probe.

The affair became public in December 2014 with the arrest of 36 serving and former officials. The arrests came about four months before the 2015 election, which saw Yisrael Beytenu shrink from 13 seats to six, leading to accusations by party officials that it amounted to a political assassination attempt.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, with his wife, Sara, addresses Likud supporters on the night of the Israeli elections at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, March 3, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The most prominent public official to be felled by the probe was former tourism minister and Yisrael Beytenu lawmaker Stas Misezhnikov, who was sentenced to a 15-month prison term after he was convicted of attempting to secure employment for his romantic partner in 2012 by funding a student festival in Eilat using ministry funds.

Likud officials acknowledged on Thursday that the demand to reopen the case was linked to Liberman’s announcement earlier in the day he would support a bill prohibiting an indicted member of Knesset from becoming prime minister — a bill targeting Netanyahu, who goes on trial for corruption charges on March 17.

In a statement, Likud demanded that Mandelblit “examine and if necessary investigate” an alleged meeting between Liberman’s two sons and a real estate developer, Moshe Yeshayahu, some time before the defense ministry, led by Liberman, rezoned land owned by the developer from a firing zone to an area where construction was permitted.

Likud claimed the former defense minister has been implicated in the case by testimonies now being heard at the ongoing trial involving former lawmakers from the party.

Liberman’s reaction to Likud’s demand on Thursday was not subtle.

The leader of the Yisrael Beytenu party Avigdor Liberman votes in the settlement of Nokdim, West Bank, March 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

His party’s official Twitter account, @Beytenu, posted a tweet that read, “Yisrael Beytenu party chairman MK Avigdor Liberman’s response to Likud’s appeal to the attorney general,” followed by seven emojis of a face crying tears of joy.

Netanyahu also slammed Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz for backing a bill that would prevent him from serving as prime minister.

“Likud and the right won the election in a knockout,” Netanyahu insisted. “Gantz, who failed at the ballot box, is now trying together with Liberman to rob Israel’s citizens of their decision when they granted Likud under my leadership a decisive victory.”

While Netanyahu’s Likud surpassed Blue and White in Monday’s election, winning 36 seats to Gantz’s 33, the bloc of parties backing Netanyahu for premier fell short of a 61-seat majority, with just 58 seats.

Under Israel’s election law, an MK must be voted in as prime minister by a majority of members of Knesset.

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