At the Lieberman Trial, an 'Old Friend' Tells a Thrilling Spy Tale

In testifying 'against' former FM Avigdor Lieberman, ex-ambassador to Belarus Ze’ev Ben Aryeh describes a spy tale in which nothing is really what it seems.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Amir Oren
Amir Oren

Former Ambassador Ze’ev Ben Aryeh sits opposite Room 216 on the second floor of the Magistrate’s Court building in Jerusalem’s Russian Compound, waiting to be called to testify.

His birth name is Vladimir, but in Israel he Hebraizes it, along with his last name, in honor of his father. He holds a book, “Victor and Masha,” by Alona Kimhi. Why that book? Could it be the Russian-sounding names that interest him? Ben Aryeh dismisses the suggestion and points to the sticker on the book: "1+1." He actually bought a different book, which he already finished reading; this was only the second one he grabbed, picking up it up for no special reason.

Things aren’t always as they seem, as Ben Aryeh can attest. He is widely known as a man of letters and culture. He hasn't decided yet, but possibly when the affair in which he is currently embroiled is over, he might write about it. He is only a translator, not an author, he says modestly. But one never knows.

In Room 216, Lieberman’s lawyers on Thursday tried to come up with excuses to explain Former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s appointment of Ben Aryeh as ambassador to Latvia. He speaks “three Slavic languages – Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian,” attorney Dr. Jacob Weinroth proudly proclaimed.

Weinroth went on to describe Ben Aryeh as a multilingual wonder, even getting Ben Aryeh to admit that he also knows Arabic and German. A kind of Abba Eban of the Eastern Bloc. And all to show that Ben Aryeh was in fact a diplomatic wizard whom the foreign service, suffering from a lack of Russian speakers, was lucky to have.

Weinroth, himself a survivor of the legal system, managed – almost imperceptibly – to burnish Ben Aryeh’s image. He addressed Ben Aryeh as “Ambassador,” to remind everyone that this was a respectable personage.

When Ben Aryeh was called in, he passed as close as one hand washes the other to Lieberman, with both completely ignoring each other, like strangers on the train. Ben Aryeh stood facing the judges, his back to Lieberman. His memory was a little fuzzy – it’s his age, explained Ben Aryeh, 69. On the whole his memory is good; some things he remembers more and some he remembers less. He didn't deny that he admired Lieberman, and the fact that Lieberman was under external investigation did not dim that admiration. But, unfortunately, Ben Aryeh got no special treatment – no protectsia – from Lieberman.

In the end, Ben Aryeh was convicted last October of obstruction of justice and passing information to an unauthorized person after confessing as part of a plea bargain. Judges Yitzhak Shimoni and Eitan Kornhause may be new to this unfolding drama, but Judge Hagit Mak-Kalmanovitch is well-acquainted with it: She presided over Ben Aryeh’s case last year, and even took pity on him, shaving two months off of the six months of community service agreed upon in the plea bargain.

The defense, in questioning a hostile Ben Aryeh, presented Lieberman as the innocent guest from Israel whose host shoved a note into his hand, with details of the investigation against him. The two then had a three- to five-minute conversation, or perhaps no words were exchanged – it’s hard to know.

Ben Aryeh’s spy tale was more thrilling than persuasive. He wanted the judges to believe he communicated with Lieberman through a note out of fear that rooms, cars and offices were bugged by the Belarusian secret police.

But the defense doesn’t care what the witness said, as long as there is no proof the defendant was interested in it: Lieberman was not grateful to Ben Aryeh and so the latter’s appointment cannot be seen as the result of his having cast bread upon the waters.

When Ben Aryeh finished testifying, another Foreign Ministry official took the stand – Victor Harel, former ambassador to Brussels and Madrid, Foreign Ministry deputy director general, and supervisor of the foreign service. His testimony was fluent and impressive. He described a rare conversation he had with Lieberman one Friday morning at the Foreign Ministry – where the offices are closed on Fridays. He complained to Lieberman that there were no standards or transparency in appointments, and that ambassadors were being appointed who were not worthy of the job, like Ben Aryeh.

Harel also handed Ben Aryeh a backhanded compliment: He could be a cultural attaché, not a head of mission.

The main accomplishment of the defense on the first day of the evidentiary phase of the trial seemed to be thwarting prosecutor Michal Sibel-Darel’s attempt to get to her daughter’s 3 P.M. graduation ceremony from a sergeants’ course at the Tzrifin army base.

The defense has a higher hurdle to surmount next week, when three members of the appointments committee and one of its candidates are expected to testify. And that’s just in the courtroom. An important German magazine is conducting a comprehensive investigation of Lieberman’s business dealings and connections in Israel and Europe. Several Israelis, who are not necessarily witnesses in the trial, will be asked to enlighten the investigative reports with the ins and outs of Lieberman’s activities.

Avigdor Lieberman, Danny Ayalon, Ze'ev Ben Aryeh.Credit: Haaretz

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