In 1999, Benjamin Netanyahu, in his first go-round as prime minister, lost his reelection bid to Ehud Barak, much to the delight of Israel’s conscripted media and of many in its judicial system.
At the time, a criminal investigation was launched against Netanyahu for supposedly misappropriating property from the prime minister’s residency. He had to leave it in a hurry in order to turn it over to his successor, and the claim was that he’d absconded with some trinkets and gifts that had been given to him as prime minister but belonged to the residency, not to him personally.
Nothing much came of the investigation other than it’s having served as an illustration of how the judicial left in Israel and the chronically politicized State Attorney’s Office habitually file politically-motivated indictments and open politically-motivated criminal investigations.
In Israel there is a long tradition of the left using prosecution to get its way, especially when voters refuse to endorse what the left wants. The investigation of Netanyahu was payback for Netanyahu’s having beaten the left in the previous election.
Which brings us to Avigdor Liberman, who last week stepped down as foreign minister. The left has always had a problem with Liberman, and it is not just a matter of political ideology. Liberman launched a political career from nothing and turned his party into the second strongest in Israel. He recently merged it with the Likud and the new superparty is expected to capture a third of Knesset seats.
Liberman, with his chunky demeanor and heavy Russian accent, basically took the Russian-Israeli vote away from the better known Natan Sharansky and is increasingly attracting non-Russian Israeli voters who like what he represents.
Liberman is blunt and has no qualms denouncing the treasonous proclivities of many Israeli Arabs. That makes the left hysterical, and there have been attempts to bar him from running on grounds that he is a “racist.”
Fifteen years ago, the State Attorney’s Office opened an investigation against Liberman, supposedly for corruption. It dragged its feet for over a decade. It regularly attempted to prevent Liberman and his party from succeeding by releasing statements a few weeks before every election suggesting that criminal charges were about to be filed against him. But none ever was.
The upcoming election and the current campaign season in Israel have been no different. For months, prosecutors leaked to media outlets that they had found horrific dirt about Liberman and were about to file criminal charges.
But just as the election season was heading for its climax, prosecutors last week made a startling announcement. Due to lack of evidence they were dropping 95 percent of the charges they had been investigating against Liberman, though they hinted that they still thought he was guilty of them, citing things like witnesses having died over the past decade and misplaced evidence.
Prosecutors did retain basically one single charge against Liberman, claiming he was guilty of corruption and accepting a bribe in what the media are calling the “Ambassador Affair.”
Bear in mind that Liberman was not convicted of any crime; prosecutors merely announced plans to indict him for one. At first Liberman dismissed the charges as silly, but then he announced he was resigning as foreign minister.
So just what was the single charge against Liberman – the only one the prosecution believes it can make stick? I doubt one Israeli in 100 can answer that question, and I found just one story in the Israeli press last weekend that answered the question.
So just what was Liberman’s horrid crime? The one prosecutors plan to move forward with to trial?
It turns out that a few years back prosecutors tried to solicit evidence against Liberman from the Belarus government, including information about a bank account supposedly under Liberman’s control in some Belarus bank. The Israeli ambassador to Belarus at the time, Ze’ev Ben Aryeh, learned about the formal request for information the Israeli prosecutor had sent to the Belarus government. Ben Aryeh tipped off Liberman and even gave him the number of the bank account in question.
I am not sure passing on the information to Liberman was a crime at all, but even if it were, it was a crime committed by Ben Aryeh, not Liberman. The end of the saga is that Liberman eventually was appointed foreign minister and Ben Aryeh was appointed by committee (ostensibly without Liberman’s input, as protocol requires), to serve as ambassador to Latvia.
Belarus is a much larger country than Latvia, so it’s not at all clear the appointment served as some kind of promotion, but prosecutors suspect it was a reward for Ben Aryeh’s having helped Liberman with the information about the criminal investigation against him. Liberman says Ben Aryeh was appointed because he is competent, experienced, and speaks fluent Russian.
Lots of luck to the Israeli attorney general proving otherwise. And lots of luck to Israeli democracy surviving when the State Attorney’s Office functions as a partisan wing of the left.
About the Author: Steven Plaut is a professor at the University of Haifa. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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