The Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court acquitted former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman of fraud charges on Wednesday.
Lieberman was charged with one count of fraud and breach of trust. The case revolves around one Ze’ev Ben Aryeh, who in his capacity as ambassador to Belarus was privy to information about a police investigation into Lieberman and passed it on to his boss, the minister. Some months later, Lieberman appointed Ben Aryeh as his diplomatic advisor, and later as ambassador to Latvia, despite knowing that Ben Aryeh had committed a crime by giving him this information. Moreover, he concealed Ben Aryeh’s actions from others involved in the appointment process.
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The judges wrote that in purely legal terms, they believed Lieberman acted improperly by failing to inform the Foreign Ministry's appointments committee of his past dealing with Ben Aryeh. However, they added the accused was not aware of the seriousness of the circumstances and his appointment of Ben Aryeh was not a promotion."
"This chapter is behind me," Lieberman said after the verdict. "I am now focusing on the challenges ahead." He thanked his family and his supporters for their backing.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with Lieberman on the phone, congratulating him "on the unanimous acquittal," adding that he is "happy upon your return to the Israeli government so we can keep working together in Israel's best interests."
President Shimon Peres also phoned Lieberman to congratulate him. Lieberman thanked Peres and said they will be working together again and holding their weekly meetings as president and foreign minister.
Labor chief and opposition head Shelly Yacimovich called on Netanyahu not to allow Lieberman to return to the Foreign Ministry. "This is a foreign minister that has damaged Israel," she said.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said she was "personally happy" for Lieberman: "I respect the court's verdict and have full trust in the legal and law enforcement system."
Finance Minister and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid said he "warmly congratulates" Lieberman on his acquittal.
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett said that Lieberman's acquittal comes after too many years of delayed justice. "I am happy about Lieberman's return to the Foreign Ministry," he added.
Habayit Hayehudi party said in a statement that the verdict "is an important message to the national camp" that will "strengthen those who do not give up on Israel's interests around the world."
Meretz chairwoman Zahava Gal-On said that "the court's ruling should be respected, while the conduct of Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein should be examined."
Shas chairman Aryeh Deri said he was sure "Lieberman can now come back and contribute to the state of Israel with renewed energy. It is too bad that he has waited this long for this justice."
"Not every instance of improper behavior deserves a prison sentence”
The judges wrote that the State Prosecutor’s Office had not proven that Lieberman knew that the information Ben Aryeh gave him had come from a request for a judicial inquiry that had been relayed to him as part of his role as ambassador.
The verdict went on to state that the possibility that Lieberman thought the information had reached him from other sources, such as a leak from officials of Belarus’s government, could not be ruled out. By ruling as they did, the judges accepted Lieberman’s defense, even though Ben Aryeh had said during questioning: “I told Lieberman that Belarusian officials had been asked, via the embassy, to provide information about the investigation, and I told him details about the investigation.... Lieberman listened to what I said.” In their verdict, the judges ruled that it could not be established that Lieberman was aware of the severity of the ambassador’s actions. As stated, after the meeting with Ben Aryeh at the Minsk hotel in in October 2008, Lieberman met Yisrael Beiteinu MK Faina Kirschenbaum and told her: “That idiot is going to get us into trouble.”
The judges also accepted Lieberman’s defense that the appointment of Ben Aryeh as an adviser on his political staff in March 2009, when he was appointed foreign minister, did not constitute a promotion. “Ben Aryeh’s appointment was not a promotion for him, nor did it constitute a 'springboard' or an advantage for an appointment to high-ranking positions in the future. We find that Ben Aryeh’s appointment was appropriate to Ben Aryeh’s skills and abilities and the needs of the Foreign Ministry, which did not have an abundance of Russian-speaking employees or experts in Russian affairs who were at Ben Aryeh’s level.”
The judges did not accept the testimony of Danny Ayalon, former deputy foreign minister and head of the Foreign Ministry appointments committee, who said Lieberman had asked him to choose Ben Aryeh. Ayalon testified after he was removed from Yisrael Beiteinu’s Knesset list, and about three weeks later he defended the appointment in an interview on Channel 1. “There’s no argument that the defendant never contacted or spoke to most of the members of the appointments committee,” the verdict stated. The judges added, “Danny Ayalon’s testimony is the only account that states the defendant with influence on the way the committee members voted. Ayalon’s version of events was not uniform on various topics that are at the heart of the controversy.” The judges were referring to the proximity in time between Ayalon’s dismissal and the date on which Ayalon contacted police and the media and criticized Ben Aryeh’s appointment, contradicting his previous statements. Thus, the verdict stated, there was reasonable doubt regarding Ayalon’s version of events, and Lieberman could not be convicted on the basis of his testimony.
The judges also added that Ben Aryeh was a suitable, and even a "natural" candidate for the post of ambassador to Latvia. “It is reasonable that the appointments committee would choose Ben Aryeh for the post even without the defendant’s influence or involvement,” the verdict stated.
The judges found misconduct on Lieberman's part when he refrained from telling the appointments committee about Ben Aryeh’s actions and when he brought the appointment for the approval of the ministerial committee and the cabinet.
“It is true that the defendant behaved inappropriately. But as [Supreme Court President] Justice Barak wrote in the case against [former Prime Minister’s Office director Shimon] Sheves, ‘Not every failure is a crime. Not every error in judgment can be seen as a felony. Not every instance of ethically improper behavior deserves a prison sentence.’”