Judges Let Lieberman Off, but They Don't Want Him in the Government

The justices write that Lieberman's deeds as revealed in the fraud case 'are unseemly, immoral and not of the standard expected of a public figure' in Israel.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Amir Oren
Amir Oren

On the eve of the Knesset election, Benjamin Netanyahu promised his new partner Avigdor Lieberman that in return for joining forces on a single ticket, Lieberman would receive any portfolio he desired. Now Lieberman can cash in that check and use it to remove Moshe Ya'alon from the Defense Ministry, though Ya'alon has already released an ingratiating statement celebrating Lieberman's return to the government "in light of the challenges facing Israel."

The defense portfolio would be the ultimate expression of Lieberman's victory over the establishment that gave him the cold shoulder. But if he forgoes defense, it will probably be because there - as at the Finance Ministry – you have to work hard, and there's not much chance of long trips abroad like at the Foreign Ministry. Also, defense minister would be too small for Lieberman; he's the de facto prime minister, dictating policies to Netanyahu.

Lieberman wasn't put on political trial; he's a politician who was put on trial. The judges declared that behavior forbidden to a public official is allowed to an elected official, since being "unseemly" isn't criminal. The prosecution will appeal this assertion.

The judges insulted Lieberman – though he reveled in the insult – when doubting his understanding of the meaning of Ambassador Ze'ev Ben Aryeh's act in Minsk. When Lieberman was angry at Ben Aryeh for divulging the secret of the investigation against him, he called the ambassador an idiot. Lieberman isn't an idiot, but to justify the acquittal he apparently misunderstood the significance of his deeds.

Near the end of the ruling, on page 112 out of 115, the judges essentially disqualify Lieberman from serving as a minister, or at least provide a basis for court appeals against a decision by Netanyahu to bring him back into the government. The justices write that Lieberman's deeds "are unseemly, immoral and not of the standard expected of a public figure, certainly not so high ranking a figure as a minister."

This is a moral disqualification, not a legal one, since "it is unclear whether the deeds amount to a criminal offense." The congratulations that Lieberman's friends-rivals showered on him thus place them in a ridiculous light. The judges condemn Lieberman's behavior, though they let others draw the obvious conclusion of leaving him outside the government.

Lieberman's testimony is enough to disqualify him from returning to the Foreign Ministry. He told the investigators of his flagrant contempt for the ministry's director general, Victor Harel, who came to his office for a work discussion. Lieberman smirked. He had smoked a cigar – apparently the ban on smoking in public places doesn't apply to him – and watched television, paying no attention to what Harel was saying. His lack of interest in ambassadorial appointments, which he employed to deny he gave special treatment in the Ben Aryeh case, also shows how unsuited he is to be foreign minister.

The significance for the police commissioner

The judges suggest "using logic and common sense," but don't always do so themselves. Lieberman, in their opinion, wasn't necessarily aware of the severity of Ben Aryeh's act, since it was not proved that he knew that Ben Aryeh had obtained the investigation documents from the embassy he headed.

In any case, Ben Aryeh obtained the material as ambassador, whether it was the moment an envelope arrived from Jerusalem or after using his connections to obtain a copy from his Minsk sources. Lieberman himself had said to Chief Superintendent Yoram Naaman, "I had some friends there, in the Belarus elite, and I thought they wanted to leak." Strangely, the judges cite these words without grasping their full meaning.

The image of the victim doesn't suit Lieberman. Of course, he has been under investigation and indictment for years as an innocent man, but a victim is a weak, hunted individual, whereas Lieberman is strong and a hunter, arousing fear rather than pity. It's now law enforcement's turn to sustain the damage. If Yisrael Beiteinu's Yitzhak Aharonovitch remains public security minister, he can focus on who will be police chief.

In May, Yohanan Danino will complete his term of three years as police commissioner. Danino is at a crossroads. If he seeks another year in office, he'll have to hurry to prevent Aharonovitch from announcing plans to interview candidates for the next term.

Aharonovitch is annoyed with Danino because, shortly after his promotion, he built for himself, just like any police commissioner, his own public standing. If Danino wants a fourth year, Aharonovitch may not assent. He might not even consult with Lieberman, the leader of his party thanks to whom he is minister.

There are at least four candidates for police commissioner, yet Aharonovitch can bypass them all and reinstate a man who served in the police for about 35 years until Aharonovitch promoted him. This man has remained grateful – the head of the prison service, Aharon Franco.

Every commissioner is certain he'll revolutionize the service and that the police have much to lose if he isn't allowed to realize his plan. Indeed, there are nuances that depend on the chief, but all in all the police have been run in a similar way under all commissioners; the organizational culture and officer corps are too deeply entrenched to change significantly.

This isn't the case with the State Prosecutor's Office; there a major shake-up is needed. It isn't a question of expertise. Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein wouldn't have embarked on the ambassador venture had he not believed that a conviction was almost certain. And he still might be proved right in an appeal.

The State Prosecutor's Office has plenty of skilled lawyers, and no court decision is preordained. See for example the prosecution's ostensibly convincing performance in the Holyland trial at the Tel Aviv District Court; perhaps that team would have been more successful at the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court. The problem is that the State Prosecutor's Office isn't managed well. Cases are protracted and left yawning. There are no standard criteria and the team spirit of the anti-corruption commando has vanished.

An appeal of the Lieberman acquittal is clearly necessary, though it amounts to nothing more than a drowning prosecutor clutching at straws, when he really needs a lifeguard. Otherwise, it's not only Lieberman who'll reign victorious, but Liebermanism.

A smiling Lieberman as he arrives in the courtroom before hearing the verdict in his corruption trial on Wednesday.Credit: AP

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