Which Top Israeli Official Was a Foreign Agent in Manafort Case? Israeli Politicians Demand Immediate Probe

Manafort allegedly worked with an Israeli official to defame Ukraine's then-opposition leader with accusations of anti-Semitism. Defense Ministry said 'Lieberman does not know Manafort, never met him and never spoke to him'

Paul Manafort arrives at U.S. District Court in Washington, U.S., June 15, 2018.
\ Jonathan Ernst/ REUTERS

Labor Party Chairman Avi Gabbay asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday to launch an immediate investigation into whether a foreign agent is operating within the Israeli government. 

Gabbay made the request following the publication of the plea deal U.S. President Donald Trump’s former campaign director, Paul Manafort, reached with special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. 

The plea deal alleges that a senior Israeli government official conspired with Manafort in 2012 to defame then-Ukrainian opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko by accusing her of maintaining ties with anti-Semitic groups. Manafort said that, as a result, American Jews would pressure the Obama administration not to support Yulia Tymoshenko, whose opponent was a client of Manafort’s, the indictment says.

Manafort served for years as a political advisor and lobbyist for pro-Russian politicians in Eastern Europe, especially Ukraine.

“It is important to stress that the details of the indictment were formulated with the consent of Manafort’s attorneys,” Gabbay wrote to Netanyahu, adding that Manafort was expected to admit to the details soon. 

Labor Party Chairman Avi Gabbay.
Olivier Fitoussi

The Defense Ministry issued a statement Sunday saying that "Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman does not know Manafort, never met him and never spoke to him."

The Defense Ministry added that "the condemnation published at the time [2012] by the Foreign Ministry was the right thing to do and at the right time, against an anti-Semitic party that spread its evil word dozens of times."

“An examination of the part of the indictment that deals with Israel leads to the shocking conclusion that there might have been (and may still be) a mole (a foreign agent) in government service, serving extraneous interests. This requires at the very least the launching of an immediate and thorough investigation," Gabay's letter stated.

"Simply put, the facts of the indictment state that someone in the Israeli Foreign Ministry was a pawn in Manafort’s hands, with whom he did what he wanted and led him to release an official statement that assisted him in promoting these extraneous interests. These are serious factual claims, being officially made by the most senior law enforcement officials in the United States and they should be disturbing to every citizen,” the letter continued.

Noting that Netanyahu is also Israel’s foreign minister, Gabbay said: “As the person responsible for the foreign service and the protection of Israel against espionage by a foreign country, you must immediately begin to investigate and clarify whether there is a foreign agent in the service of Israel and if Israel’s foreign service was indeed used to promote extraneous interests. The public must be informed of the launch of an investigation and its outcome.”

Copies of Gabbay’s letter were also delivered to the attorney general, the head of the Shin Bet security service and the Knesset State Control Committee.

Former Meretz chairwoman Zahava Galon sent a similar letter to the attorney general earlier Sunday in which attorney Itay Mack wrote on her behalf: “Under the circumstances, you are asked to order a criminal investigation against the senior Israeli official who was involved in this serious matter. An investigation should be launched without delay in Israel, before Israel finds itself once again a key player in investigations in the United States, as happened in the Iran-Contras affair."

'Bada bing bada boom'

According to documents, Manafort attempted to compromise Tymoshenko’s status when he was working for the pro-Russian government in Kiev. According to the indictment, Manafort spread information that one of Tymoshenko’s most important supporters was anti-Semitic, and the senior Israeli government official was asked to assist Manafort in doing so.

The Ukrainian president at the time was Viktor Yanukovych, considered an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. To hurt Tymoshenko, and engender greater support for the Ukrainian government, the document states, Manafort and the senior Israeli official worked to jointly accuse Tymoshenko’s supporters and allies of supporting anti-Semitic views. Manafort bragged at the time that “Obama Jews” would put pressure on the American administration to disavow Tymoshenko and her supporters as a result of his ploy.

The amended indictment issued against Manafort on Friday indeed mentions that he maintained a mysterious connection with a “senior Israeli government official” in an attempt to influence America's ties with Russia and Ukraine. The document doesn’t name the senior Israeli official who Manafort communicated with. However, in October 2012, when Manafort was involved in the matter, Israel’s then-foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, published a statement attacking the political rivals of Manafort’s clients in Ukraine for espousing anti-Semitism. 

"Israel is concerned by the recently signed agreement between the Batkivshchyna party and the extremist party Svoboda, whose anti-Semitic outbursts have caused outrage in Ukraine and Israel more than once," the statement said. 

"For example, in the past, the leader of Svoboda has praised 'the fight against the moscali [derogatory term for Russians] and the zhyd [derogatory term for Jews].' The expression of such views brings to mind the dark pages of history of the last century, which have led humanity to the tragedy of World War Two. Israel condemns anti-Semitism in all its forms, and expresses hope that common sense will prevail," the statement concluded. 

Lieberman’s statement was featured in reports by a number of American news outlets.  

“I have someone putting it in the New York Post. Bada bing bada boom,” Manafort wrote to one of his associates. He intended to use the allegations to pressure the Obama administration into acting against his clients’ rivals in Ukraine. “The Jewish community will take this out on Obama on Election Day if he does nothing,” Manafort said at the time. 

The report was eventually published in The New York Times and on the Breitbart news website.

On Friday, Lieberman denied any connection to Manafort and informed Haaretz through his spokesman that he had never met or spoken with Manafort.

Alex Miller, a former Yisrael Beiteinu lawmaker and former chairman of the Israel-Ukraine Parliamentary Friendship Group who was an observer in the 2012 elections in Ukraine, underscored Lieberman’s statement when speaking with Haaretz. 

“I don’t know Manafort, and I’m not aware of any request about such a statement, the anti-Semitic character of the Freedom Party is known and clear to all and Israel has denounced this because that is the right thing to do.” Miller was referring to the fact that Tymoshenko’s party, Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) had signed an agreement with Svoboda (Freedom), an ultra-nationalist party. 

“There were extreme elements in the Freedom Party at the time who spoke out against Israel, and of course we expressed ourselves," Miller said. "One can also follow the statements by the Jewish community and see the concern. There was a consensus in Israel and in the Jewish world that there’s a problem with them.” 

Senior Foreign Ministry officials confirmed that Israel’s position was that anti-Semitism in the Freedom Party should be denounced, but the officials did not say whether they agreed with the public connection to Tymoshenko at the time.