Former Israeli Ambassador Recants in Graft Case Against Lieberman

Former ambassador Ze'ev Ben Aryeh, a key witness, denies he asked former foreign minister for a job; prosecution unsuccessfully seeks to have him declared hostile.

Revital Hovel
Revital Hovel
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Revital Hovel
Revital Hovel

Former ambassador Ze’ev Ben Aryeh turned against the prosecution on Thursday at the trial of former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and denied in his testimony that he had ever asked Lieberman to give him a job.

Lieberman has been charged with fraud and breach of trust for his efforts to appoint Ben Aryeh as ambassador to Latvia, after Ben Aryeh, in his former post as ambassador to Belarus, had informed Lieberman about an Israel Police request to the government of Belarus for information about Lieberman’s affairs. The police were investigating Lieberman on unrelated charges at the time. Ben Aryeh has already been convicted of giving Lieberman this information.

To most of prosecutor Michal Sabel-Darel’s questions, Ben Aryeh simply responded by saying “I don’t know.” Sabel-Darel therefore sought to declare him a hostile witness, but the judges told her to continue her questioning.

In her opening remarks to the Jerusalem magistrate’s court, Sabel-Darel revealed that a Foreign Ministry report written at the time described Ben Aryeh as having done a poor job in Belarus and recommended against giving him another posting.

This fact was not included in the indictment and hadn’t previously been published; it emerged from the prosecution’s discussions with Victor Harel, the Foreign Ministry’s former comptroller, who is due to testify later in the day on Thursday.

“The acts of commission and omission that Lieberman committed were at real variance with what is required of him as foreign minister,” Sabel-Darel told the court. “We will bring evidence that Ben Aryeh’s appointment to another ambassadorial posting was problematic for reasons beyond his criminal act of giving information to the defendant, because of the negative findings in the Foreign Ministry’s review of the embassy he led in Belarus, circumstances of which the defendant was aware. This makes the defendant’s acts even graver, and it indicates the harm that could have been done had this appointment actually gone through … Despite all this, the defendant opted over and over to advance the appointment.”

Another member of the prosecution team, Eran Zeller, then asked Ben Aryeh, “In 2010, you told the police you requested Lieberman’s help in getting a job. Why did you, a professional employee of the Foreign Ministry, appeal to a politician?”

Ben Aryeh responded, “I don’t recall that I asked for help from Mr. Lieberman. You ask why I asked for help, but I say I didn’t ask for help.”

After the prosecution had finished questioning Ben Aryeh, the defense began its cross-examination. One of Lieberman’s attorneys, Jacob Weinroth, unveiled a positive evaluation of Ben Aryeh written by his superiors in the Foreign Ministry. He then questioned Ben Aryeh about this document, seeking thereby to prove that, contrary to the prosecution’s claim, Ben Aryeh was indeed a suitable choice for ambassador to Latvia. Weinroth argued that none of the other candidates spoke Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian, as Ben Aryeh did.

He also asked Ben Aryeh directly about Sabel-Darel’s claim that he was an unsuitable candidate, saying, “There’s a man called Victor Harel. Did you ever hear a word of criticism from him directed at yourself?” Ben Aryeh replied, “No. But if you’re asking already, this is the most painful thing, because I’ve never seen cynicism like this before.”

On Wednesday, the prosecution said it would need another three or four sessions over the next two months to finish presenting its case.

If Lieberman is convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude and sentenced to at least three months in jail, he would be barred from running for Knesset for seven years after serving his sentence.

The indictment charges Lieberman with active involvement in Ben Aryeh’s appointment as ambassador to Latvia. It says that before the ministry’s appointments committee convened in October 2009, Lieberman summoned the committee’s chairman, then-Deputy Foreign Minister Dan Ayalon, and ordered him to appoint Ben Aryeh, on the grounds that he was the best candidate. Ayalon accepted this judgment and acted accordingly, and Ben Aryeh beat out 10 other candidates for the job.

Lieberman, according to the indictment, did this “knowing that Ben Aryeh’s actions [in giving him the information from Belarus] had been meant to benefit the defendant, and that appointing him [first] as an advisor on the foreign minister’s political staff and [then] as ambassador to Latvia entailed a sort of reward for someone who had committed grave acts on his behalf, or at least that this was liable to be perceived as such a forbidden reward. The defendant did all this while being embroiled in a severe conflict of interests between his obligations to the public and his personal feelings of obligation.”

On Wednesday, Channel 10 television published a transcript of Lieberman’s testimony to the police last December. The transcript shows that police investigators confronted Lieberman with portions of Ayalon’s testimony, which was given about two weeks after Lieberman ousted Ayalon from his Yisrael Beiteinu party’s Knesset slate.

“Lieberman spoke with me,” Ayalon said, according to the transcript. “In general, the ambassadorial appointments are within the foreign minister’s power, via the Foreign Ministry’s appointments committee … Therefore, it was customary for the foreign minister from time to time to voice his opinions and preferences before the committee met, and that’s what happened in the case of Ze’ev Ben Aryeh.”

Lieberman emphatically denied this. “No such thing ever happened,” he told the police. “That’s Danny’s opinion, and this is my position.”

Ayalon also said that after the committee approved Ben Aryeh’s appointment, Lieberman called to thank him. Lieberman denied this, too, saying sarcastically, “There are also people who say I murdered Arlosoroff” – a reference to the unsolved 1933 murder of Chaim Arlosoroff, a pre-state Zionist leader. When police asked him how they were to reconcile his testimony with Ayalon’s, he replied, “I don’t interpret other people.”

Police then asked whether he had pushed Ben Aryeh’s appointment “because you wanted to help Ben Aryeh, given his loyalty to you, when he gave you confidential information from the [police] request to conduct depositions in Belarus.” Lieberman again said no.

“The answer is negative,” he said. “He didn’t give me any critical information or sensitive intelligence information. I told him immediately that this was nonsense, and I told him in Yiddish that this was pure fantasy, and I also said I didn’t understand what was written, aside from my own name.”

After Channel 10’s report appeared, Lieberman’s attorneys demanded an investigation into who had leaked the police transcripts to the television station. They also threatened that if Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein doesn’t order such a probe by Sunday, they will petition the High Court of Justice.

“There can be no dispute that the source of the leak in this matter is someone from the law enforcement agencies, because we received this material only late in the evening, very shortly before it was published,” they wrote in their letter to Weinstein. “The timing of the publication of this material, just before the court was to start hearing evidence in the trial, and the tendentiousness of the content of what was published, to the detriment of our client, can leave no doubt that this was an unhanded attempt to illicitly influence the legal process.”

Ze'ev Ben Aryeh at the magistrate's court in Jerusalem in December.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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