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Israel's former foreign minister indicted on fraud charges

December 30, 2012|By Batsheva Sobelman | This post has been corrected. See the note below for details.
  • Avigdor Lieberman, then Israel's foreign minister, is shown during a Nov. 21 news conference at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem.
Avigdor Lieberman, then Israel's foreign minister, is shown during… (Abir Sultan / European Pressphoto…)

JERUSALEM — Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's controversial former foreign minister, was indicted Sunday on charges of fraud and breach of trust.

The indictment, issued in a Jerusalem court, follows a long, drawn-out legal investigation into accusations of corruption against Lieberman, known for his uncompromising right-wing positions toward the Palestinians and Israel's own Arab population.

It also comes three weeks before general elections and casts a shadow over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's senior ally, whose political future depends on the legal outcome.

Originally investigated for more serious charges of money-laundering and bribery, Lieberman was ultimately indicted in a side case that grew out of the primary investigation over the past decade.

According to the indictment, Israeli investigators in confidence asked the Israeli  Embassy in Belarus to ask local authorities for discreet assistance on the probe into Lieberman’s activities. Israeli Ambassador Zeev Ben-Aryeh passed this information on to Lieberman when the latter, then deputy prime minister, visited Belarus in 2008.

Ben-Aryeh also handed Lieberman a note with the details of the company and bank account the Israel authorities wanted information about, the indictment says.

Lieberman was appointed foreign minister in 2009. Several months later, Ben-Aryeh, who had finished his term as ambassador in Belarus, sought an appointment as ambassador to Latvia. The foreign minister refrained from mentioning their ties and actively advanced Ben-Aryeh's appointment, which fell through when the diplomat's tip to Lieberman became known.

Ben-Aryeh was suspended from the foreign service and ultimately resigned. This year, he was convicted disrupting legal proceedings and passing information to an unauthorized person, accepting a plea bargain. He was recently sentenced to four months in jail, which was converted to community service.

Lieberman resigned from his ministerial post this month when Atty. Gen.  Yehuda Weinstein announced his intent to indict him. The indictment was held up for two weeks while police interviewed additional witnesses, after media revealed several key figures had not been questioned.

Among the new witnesses listed in the final indictment served Sunday was Deputy Prime Minister Danny Ayalon, who headed the appointment committee. According to the indictment, Lieberman instructed Ayalon to push Ben-Aryeh's appointment, explaining he was the best qualified of the 10 candidates.

The new information obtained by the police in recent weeks was not enough to change the charges, which remain fraud and breach of trust. But the revised indictment includes stronger language and greater detail suggesting Lieberman not only failed to mention his connection to the ambassador but actively pushed his appointment.

When Lieberman handed in his resignation, he hoped for a brief break and a quick resolution of his long-lingering case that would allow him to continue his political career. The delay and new details now make an expedited procedure, such as a plea bargain ahead of next month's election, less likely.

For now, Netanyahu holds the foreign ministry post.

Lieberman was Ayalon's boss both at the ministry and in their political party, Yisrael Beiteinu. Ayalon was recently ousted from the party's list of candidates and is now a key witness in the case against him.

If the case goes to trial, Lieberman can remain a member of the Knesset or parliament but cannot be appointed a Cabinet minister before the trial ends. If convicted of a crime bearing moral turpitude, he will have to resign from parliament but will be allowed to run in the next elections.

If in addition he is sentenced to three months in jail, he will be barred from running for the Knesset for seven years.

The former minister said he is convinced the "truth will come to light" in court.

For the record, 11:35 a.m. Dec. 30: In an early version of this post, Avigdor Lieberman's first name was misspelled as Avidgor.

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