Former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's lawyers tried to prove in his corruption trial on Wednesday that his former deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, had not told the truth in court.
In the second day of the defense stage of the trial, the lawyers challenged Ayalon's assertion that while the two men were in office, Lieberman had asked him to help get Ze'ev Ben-Aryeh, the former Israeli ambassador to Belarus, appointed as ambassador to Latvia.
Lieberman, who is the chairman of the Yisrael Beiteinu party and the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, faces allegations that he worked to have Ben-Aryeh appointed to the Latvia post after the former ambassador gave him information about a police investigation into Lieberman's affairs in Belarus. Ben-Aryeh was convicted for his part in the case in plea bargain last fall and sentenced to community service.
The focus in Wednesday's session was an interview Ayalon gave to journalist Geula Even on the Channel 1 television station in November 2012, a week before Ayalon was stricken from Yisrael Beiteinu's slate of candidates for the Knesset elections held in January. In the interview, Ayalon said he did not recall Lieberman speaking to him about Ben-Aryeh's appointment and defended the decision.
He later testified in court that he claimed on Channel 1 not to remember, because he had wanted to evade the question and had been angry that the interview addressed matters beyond the diplomatic sphere. He said his spokeswoman at the time had secured an agreement from Channel 1 program producer, Yishai Cherniak, to confine the interview to foreign policy issues.
For their part, Lieberman's lawyers said Ayalon changed his version of events after he was eliminated as a Yisrael Beiteinu Knesset candidate and that his later allegations of wrongdoing on Lieberman's part were motivated by resentment. The prosecution stands behind Ayalon's testimony that he was simply trying to avoid answering the question.
In her testimony in court on Wednesday, Geula Even – who last month married Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar of the Likud party, which is closely allied with Yisrael Beiteinu – denied she had agreed in advance to the scope of the questions she would ask Ayalon.
"I have never entered into such an agreement with someone I am interviewing, certainly not with Danny Ayalon. I wouldn’t even make such an agreement with [Syrian President] Bashar Assad, and he is no less attractive an interviewee," she said.
Even said that Ayalon could have said he was not interested in answering the question or that it ran counter to the ground rules that he claimed existed but that he did neither and did not express any displeasure after the interview was over.
She also said that during United States President Barack Obama's visit to Israel in March, another staff member at Channel 1 scheduled an interview about the visit with Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., because Even felt he was "undermining [her] personal integrity" in the case against Lieberman.
The prosecution argued Even's testimony was irrelevant, because any ground rules that may have been arranged for the November interview were purportedly agreed on by Ayalon's spokeswoman and Even's producer, not Even herself.
The producer, Cherniak, then testified that had had been very surprised by Ayalon's testimony.
"There was no such agreement. The deputy minister [Ayalon] responded at length and gave reasons for his choice of Ben-Aryeh. He expanded in his comments beyond Geula's question," he said.
Cherniak told the court that Ayalon's spokeswoman, Ofri Eliyahu, who is now the spokeswoman for the President's Residence, called him when she learned that Even had denied there had been of an agreement on the ground rules of the interview. He said the call was an effort to back up Even's claim and record the conversation. It became apparent in court, though, that Eliyahu's account of events was not provided to the police until Monday of this week, about six months after the police investigation in the Lieberman case had been wrapped up.
On questioning by Jerusalem Magistrate's Court Judge Hagit Kalmanovitz, Cherniak acknowledged he did not have a specific recollection of the conversation with Ayalon's spokeswoman, but added, "I know there was no such demand [to limit the scope of the Channel 1 interview], because I remember demands like that."
Also testifying for the defense on Wednesday was Pini Avivi, who Lierbman appointed deputy director general of the Foreign Ministry in 2010. Avivi expressed high regard for Ben-Aryeh and contradicted testimony from the ministry's former comptroller, Victor Harel, whom he called a close friend, over Harel's claim that Avivi shared Harel's critical view of Ben-Aryeh's job performance.
Avivi said he was unaware of a memo Harel had written about the poor state of the Israeli embassy in Belarus, adding that Ben-Aryeh is not mentioned in the memo in any event. Harel previously testified that he met with Avivi and that the issue is noted in his diary, but in court Wednesday Avivi said he had no recollection that they discussed Ben-Aryeh directly.
"That certainly would have set off an alarm," he said.
Avivi told the court that Ben-Aryeh consulted with him when he was considering submitting his candidacy as ambassador to Latvia.
"I said [to him] that if he needed my help, I would be happy to give it," he said.
Avivi also rejected the prosecution's suggestion that since it was Lieberman who appointed him deputy director general of the ministry, his testimony might be colored by the prospect of Lieberman returning as foreign minister after the court case is over. Avivi responded that he would be retiring from the ministry in February 2014.
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