Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman held “sensitive diplomatic meetings” over the weekend during a secret trip in Vienna, where he also met with an Austrian businessman who had long been wanted for questioning by the Israel Police on corruption charges, Lieberman’s office confirmed on Monday.
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The trip had been kept secret from most of the ministry’s high-ranking officials.
During his three-day trip, which began Thursday, Lieberman met with Austrian businessman Martin Schlaff, who was suspected of being behind the $650,000 sent to a Cyprus company that Lieberman allegedly controlled. The cash infusion was part of a corruption case that has since been closed due to lack of evidence.
“They’re good friends, so naturally they meet when [Lieberman] is in the city,” Lieberman’s office said about the meeting with Schlaff, who is considered one of the most influential foreign businesspeople in Israeli politics.
Lieberman’s office said the reason for the secrecy was due to highly sensitive meetings he conducted on the trip.
“The foreign minister had three sensitive diplomatic meetings, and therefore we did not publicize his visit,” Lieberman’s office said. His office would not say whom Lieberman met in Vienna during these sessions.
The state prosecution has agreed that Schlaff is no longer wanted for questioning and may enter Israel without fear of arrest, now that the corruption cases in which he was suspected have been closed. Schlaff was also suspected of paying $4.5 million for the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s assistance in promoting an offshore casino project, but that case was closed when Sharon died in January.
As foreign minister, Lieberman made use of his ties with Schlaff to secure the release of Israeli photographer Rafael Haddad from a Libyan jail in 2010. Lieberman also went to Vienna to attend Schlaff’s son’s bar mitzvah in March.
That trip took place four months after Lieberman was found not guilty of improperly promoting an ambassador to Latvia, after the diplomat gave Lieberman information about a police investigation into the foreign minister’s affairs in Belarus. The acquittal on charges of fraud and breach of trust cleared the way for the Yisrael Beiteinu chairman’s return to the cabinet.
In addition to Sharon and Lieberman, Schlaff is thought to be close to several other Israeli politicians past and present, including former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and recently reinstated Shas chairman Aryeh Deri, both of whom have been convicted of corruption charges in separate cases.
The Vienna trip was one leg of a 10-day overseas tour that began Wednesday with a flight to the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, followed by a flight to the United States on Sunday. The statement from his office gave no indication that Lieberman would also be visiting a third country.
Lieberman flew from Vienna to Los Angeles, to speak at the Jewish National Fund’s national conference on Monday.
He was scheduled to head from Los Angeles to Washington, to meet with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
While parts of Lieberman’s trip are quite public, the Vienna leg remains somewhat mysterious. When cabinet members approved his trip several days before he left, they were told he would be visiting Austria “on matters concerning his ministry.”
Most senior Foreign Ministry officials were not aware of the side trip to Vienna, and those who did know thought Lieberman would be there for just a few hours, to make it easier to catch a flight to Los Angeles, a ministry source said. The source said ministry officials did not find out until Sunday that Lieberman had been in the city for three days.
Lieberman’s trip was also a surprise to the Austrian Foreign Ministry, which was unaware that Israel’s foreign minister was visiting. Lieberman did not meet with any Austrian government officials during his time in Vienna.
Lieberman’s office said the visit was coordinated with the Israeli Embassy in Vienna and said embassy officials met him at the airport and organized his stay in the city.