Lieberman affair / Human error sank Israel's most careful politician
Stack of papers FM left unattended reached attorney general and led to his unequivocal incrimination.
How did this happen to Avigdor Lieberman, perhaps the most careful man in the history of Israeli politics - to reach the point where the police are recommending that serious charges be brought against him? Human error is to blame. A group of documents that Lieberman forgot at a certain office reached the attorney general and eventually led to the unequivocal police recommendation.
Since 1996, when he was tapped as director general of the Prime Minister's Office, Lieberman has been under police investigation on many issues. All ended with nothing. He was suspected of receiving bribes from businessman David Appel, of scheming to have Roni Bar-On become attorney general, of fraud involving the Israel Broadcast Authority, and much more. Lieberman managed to emerge from all these cases without a scratch, and no less important, with a constant increase in the number of seats in parliament for his party, Yisrael Beiteinu.
During his years as a serial suspect, Lieberman adopted near-paranoid behavior. He changed his phone numbers at a dizzying rate and removed the battery from his cellphones during private meetings. Lieberman also liked to discuss with friends claims of close ties with the police. Occasionally, when he would meet a close friend, Lieberman would whisper: "I have information that they [the police] are on to you. Watch out. Don't talk on your cellphone."
A friend who received such a warning from Lieberman said he couldn't sleep for a few nights as a result.
In 1999, when Lieberman ran for the Knesset for the first time, I traveled with him in northern Israel. Lieberman, who stepped down from the PMO in 1997 and turned to private, international business, gave the impression of being a nouveau riche. He smoked cigars, had a lavish office in Jerusalem and drove a new Volvo with a new, extra-quiet driver by the name of Igor Schneider.
At the time, the police were conducting a secret investigation against him. They suspected, among other things, that he as involved with underworld figures from the former Soviet Union. During our trip to the north, Lieberman was constantly on the phone, in Russian and Hebrew. After every call he would turn to me and say: "This was a deputy head of investigations, and I know everything that is going on in there." Later he told me that he always knew what kind of investigation was being carried out against him and that he had a number of sources in the police who leaked him information.
Several months later Lieberman once more surprised everyone when he managed to enter parliament with four seats. Two years later, he was national infrastructure minister in Ariel Sharon's government. In parallel to his political rise, and according to the thick volume the fraud squad sent over to Attorney General Menachem Mazuz, Lieberman continued his business activities, which are believed to have paid him handsome dividends.
What started the snowball that led to the police recommendation to indict was a group of documents sent to Lieberman's attorney from Cyprus in late 2001. These documents were forgotten by him at a certain office. Human error proved to be decisive. In 2006 the documents found their way to the office of Mazuz, who ordered the police to begin yet another investigation against Lieberman.
The documents, in English, listed private accounts held by Lieberman, as well as commercial accounts handled at the Cyprus Popular Bank. The documents showed data on Lieberman from 2001, when he was an MK and national infrastructure minister in Sharon's government.
The documents had been sent from a Cypriot attorney's office to Lieberman's attorney, Yoav Many, and showed the movement of $500,000 from MCG Holdings to Mountain View Assets. The latter is a company held by a Lieberman associate, Michael Chernoy.
Another story that Haaretz broke in August 2001 involved the transfer of $650,000 from an Austrian company to a Cypriot firm that police believe Lieberman controls. The firm, Trasimeno, was originally set up by Lieberman in 1998 for wood trading. Schneider was found to have regularly handled funds from the Trasimeno account; another person who drew thousands of dollars was Gershon Trastman, a close friend of Lieberman from the settlement of Nokdim.
The police also suspect that Lieberman had been involved in a number of businesses during his tenure in government; in addition to the wood business, he was involved in foodstuffs and minerals.
"This is an octopus," one of the investigators said in describing Lieberman's activities. "We did not believe we would get this far in this investigation."
If he is indicted, Lieberman will pass on his portfolio to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or National Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau, but will not step down from government.
He has also reiterated with confidence that "nothing will come of this, either." But police investigators are unusually confident that this time the minister will find it hard to extricate himself from the evidence against him.