Explained

Manafort’s Mysterious Israeli Connection: Everything We Know So Far

How did Israel get involved in the plea deal Paul Manafort signed with special counsel Robert Mueller? And how is Russian President Vladimir Putin related to this affair? Your guide to the controversial case

FILE Photo: Paul Manafort, Donald Trump's former campaign chief, arriving for a hearing at U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., June 15, 2018.
AFP

Paul Manafort is an international political consultant and lobbyist who managed the election campaign of U.S. President Donald Trump in 2016. At the end of last week he signed a plea bargain in which he is expected to serve as a key witness in the affair of the suspicions of Russian involvement in that election in Trump’s favor.

So how is all that now connected to Israel?

In the indictment in which he confessed as part of the plea bargain with U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller, there is also mention of Manafort’s lobbying activity for former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych, who was the pro-Russian candidate in the country’s 2012 election. According to the document, Manafort worked at the time to smear the image of Yanukovych’s rival Yulia Tymoshenko, in order to undermine the support for her by the administration of former U.S. President Barack Obama.

In order to achieve that, according to the indictment, Manafort allegedly “privately” coordinated with a senior Israeli official the publication of a declaration that would link Tymoshenko to anti-Semitic elements in Ukraine. He allegedly acted to publish this material in the American press. The goal was to cause a senior official in the Obama administration who supported Tymoshenko at the time to look like a supporter of anti-Semitism. According to current assessments in the U.S. media, including The Washington Post, the senior administration official was then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

By so doing, Manafort believed that the Jewish community in the United States would reject Tymoshenko, who had the support of Western liberals, and press for an end to support for her by Obama and Clinton.

So who is the senior Israeli official and why is that important?

The document did not reveal the identity of the “senior Israeli official” who allegedly coordinated with Manafort the publication of the declaration that was designed to intervene in U.S.-Ukraine relations.

An examination of the notices of condemnation against Tymoshenko by official sources in Israel at the time indicated that on October 27, 2012, while Manafort was working for Yanukovych’s election campaign, Israel’s Foreign Ministry, which was headed at the time by Avigdor Lieberman, published a special report in Russian specifically condemning the agreement to form a government between Tymoshenko’s party and the Svoboda (Freedom) party, whose senior officials were known for their anti-Semitic statements.

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That same condemnation of this agreement was cited at the time in Lieberman’s name in The New York Times and the far-right Breitbart News website, which did point specifically to Hillary Clinton as the guilty party.

Lieberman strongly denies any connection to Manafort and says that he never met or spoke to him, and that “the condemnation published by the Foreign Ministry at the time was correctly worded, and at the right time, against an anti-Semitic party that disseminated its demonic philosophy on dozens of occasions.” His party colleague, former MK Alex Miller, supports this version and told Haaretz that it was clear that the agreement was problematic and that Israel should condemn it. On Sunday night Lieberman even asked Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked to contact U.S. authorities as soon as possible to get them to reveal the name of the senior Israeli official and to remove the cloud.

The office of Special Counsel Mueller told Haaretz that American law prevents them from publicizing any information about sources mentioned in a case in which they aren’t suspects. At the same time, an official request from Israeli authorities to receive the information for an internal investigation may be handled differently.

Labor Party chairman Avi Gabbay and former Meretz chairwoman Zehava Galon turned to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the attorney general’s office, the Shin Bet security service and the Foreign Ministry, asking them to initiate an urgent investigation of the issue. “An examination of the part of the indictment that deals with the State of Israel leads to a conclusion that is likely to shake the foundations, to the effect that in the Civil Service there was (or perhaps still is) a mole (foreign agent) who is serving foreign interests,” warned Gabbay.

So did Tymoshenko really support anti-Semites?

Yulia Tymoshenko speaks during a press conference in Kiev, Ukraine, February 4, 2010.
AFP

Among professionals and the political leadership in Israel there was a broad consensus at the time that the Ukrainian Svoboda party, which amassed power in the 2012 election campaign, really was a party whose senior officials expressed themselves in a racist and anti-Semitic manner, and the growing support for it was dangerous for the Jewish community in the country, and in general. But the specific condemnation by the Foreign Ministry in the Russian language did not target the Svoboda party in general but rather the understandings between it and Tymoshenko’s party prior to the election – as described in Manafort’s indictment.

Then-Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said on Monday morning in an interview with Ayala Hasson on Radio 103 that he was not familiar with the statement at the time, but learned about it only recently, adding that the affair should be investigated. He said, “When I look at how that message was released, let’s say it’s a very abnormal thing … the statement is precisely what Manafort requested.” Ayalon added: “Tarnishing Tymoshenko wasn’t in Manafort’s interest, Manafort is a mercenary. It was [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s interest.” He continued, “If someone truly wants to convince the public it wasn’t him, come and show the bureau’s work that preceded that statement.”

Sources in the Foreign Ministry who were familiar with the subject at the time told Haaretz that the statement in Russian originated in the office of then-Minister Lieberman. The ministry said in response, "The Foreign Ministry issues press statements as needed on manifestations of anti-Semitism." The ministry refused to respond to a question regarding what kind of staff work is done before issuing a statement in Russian and on whose authority the statement had been issued. 

And maybe Manafort’s interest was by chance identical to Israel’s? Maybe? And maybe Manafort was just bragging for no reason and the Israeli didn’t even know about the interests behind the scenes?

It’s certainly possible that Manafort used the information about the statement that was being planned in Israel in any case, and faithfully represented the position of the foreign service, in order to accumulate credit from his employers. It’s also possible that he pressed for the publication of an existing position that was already in the pipeline.

But it’s also possible that, as claimed in the U.S. indictment, there was a “senior Israeli official” who acted on his behalf on the issue, directly or as an intermediary, and perhaps even without knowing who was behind the step and why, and in effect by doing so was also in the service of Putin.

A comprehensive examination of the publication of the statement, along with an official request to receive the information from the U.S. authorities, could make that clear.