Friends with benefits? The trial of Avigdor Lieberman

Yossi Mekelberg

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In the small courtroom 216 in Jerusalem one of the most powerful and bellicose Israeli politicians Avigdor Lieberman is fighting to prove his innocence, and thereby for his political life and possibly to avoid prison. Mr Lieberman faces charges of fraud and breach of trust, which he denies. Controversy has followed the former foreign minister Lieberman throughout his political career, whether for his extreme hawkish opinions or the cloud of suspicion of corruption. For nearly a decade Liberman’s business affairs and political deals occupied much of the Israeli police’s time. In the past the police recommended charging him and his aides with several counts of corruption including laundering money, using front companies in Cyprus, obstruction of justice, and the most recent of fraud and breach of trust. Only a dithering Attorney General prevented pursuing prosecution in the past.

However, towards the end of last year, the Attorney General decided that there was enough evidence to pursue charges against the leader of the Israel Beitenu party in regards to the suspicion of allegedly pushing for Zeev Ben Aryeh’s appointment as ambassador to Latvia. While ministerial intervention in Israel’s appointing of diplomats is not rare, in this case it is claimed that the appointment was to reward Ben Aryah. The claim is that when Ben Aryah was ambassador in Belarus he passed sensitive information onto Lieberman regarding an investigation into Lieberman’s bushiness affairs in the country. The court case reached a crucial point on Thursday when former Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon took to the witness box, claiming categorically that his former political ally and boss did indeed press for the appointment of Ben Aryeh as ambassador in Latvia, and thereby this action constituted fraud and breach of trust. Lieberman in return called him a cheat and a liar.

It will remain for the court to decide whether Ayalon was telling the truth or is just a disgruntled politician seeking revenge against his former boss, who in his typical tyrannical way excluded him from the party’s list for the Knesset shortly before the last Israeli elections.

Exploiting societal divisions

The story of Avigdor Lieberman is also the story of Israel’s extremely complex society and political body which enables opportunistic politicians to take center stage exploiting the divisions within the society and in the process lining their own pockets. Some have done this more legally than others. Lieberman, an immigrant from the Soviet Union who was born in Kishenieve, Moldova, arrived to Israel in 1978 at the age of 20. He reached almost the top of the Israeli political pyramid as Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. In less than two decades he moved from being a bouncer in a club to being an elected legislator and a cabinet minister. What seems to be a successful story of the Israeli melting pot, also painfully exposes the extent to which the Israeli political system is susceptive to populist leaders and ideas.

The story of Avigdor Lieberman is also the story of Israel’s extremely complex society and political body which enables opportunistic politicians to take center stage exploiting the divisions within the society and in the process lining their own pockets.

Yossi Mekelberg

His rise to political power relied heavily on two pillars – his extreme anti-Arab attitude, perceived by many as racist or even fascist, and his mobilising of support from immigrants, who arrived in big numbers, from the former Soviet Union after the end of the Cold War. His anti-Arab policies and language appealed to those who harbour strong anti-Arab sentiments within the Israeli society. Part of his ‘peace plan’ with the Palestinians suggested population and territory exchange which amounts to, shamefully, forcing Arab-Israeli Palestinians to be stripped of their citizenship. Lieberman has also pushed legislation, which in the end failed, requiring all Israelis to sign a loyalty oath to the Jewish state or have their citizenship revoked, knowing very well the dilemma of Israeli Arab citizens to sign such an oath. In one of his calculated outbursts in the Knesset he called the Arab legislators, who met with Hamas leaders, collaborators whose fate “… will be identical to that of those who collaborated with the Nazis. Collaborators, as well as criminals, were executed after the Nuremberg trials at the end of the World War Two. I hope that will be the fate of collaborators in this house.” Furthermore his non-compromising stance vis-a-vis Turkey is well documented and contributed to the crisis between the two countries. Living in the settlement of Nokdim has given him credentials among those who oppose withdrawing from the occupied territories.

Courtroom 216

His appeal to immigrants from the former Soviet Union derives from his own background as an immigrant. By the time the big wave of immigration to Israel in the 1990s of around one million people arrived from the former Soviet Union, Lieberman was already well established in the country and successful, yet at the same time spoke their language and understood their needs and mentality. For instance many of those who arrived from the former Soviet Union have little affinity to religion and a substantial minority are not Jewish according to the Jewish jurisprudence. Consequently they can’t marry in Israel or even be buried in the same cemeteries as Jews, even if they die while serving in the Israeli army. Lieberman of course prayed on this vulnerability, and to an extent on the naivety of these immigrants many of whom were far from being fluent in Hebrew. He promised them change in legislation addressing such issues, but never delivered on this promise. Moreover, his extreme nationalist agenda appealed to a large segment of the new immigrants, who as new comers adhere to nationalist ideologies in their attempt to prove their sense of belonging and loyalty to themselves and their new country.

The decision to put Lieberman on trial shortly before the general elections forced him to leave the foreign ministry, but did not prevent him from running for the Knesset. Controversially, Prime Minister Netanyahu decided not to appoint a new foreign minister either before the general elections or when he formed a new coalition. He is keeping the post vacant for Lieberman in case he is acquitted. It is mind-boggling how in times of great international challenges, the Israeli foreign ministry is run on a part time basis by a very busy prime minister. Moreover, it is morally questionable to keep a place around the cabinet table for someone facing such serious allegations in court. If acquitted there no legal reason for Lieberman not to return to his old job, but for now keeping it for him is morally reprehensible and practically unreasonable.

Courtroom 216 will witness much drama in the next weeks and probably months until Lieberman’s fate is decided. Depending on the court’s verdict Avigdor Lieberman might return to serve in the Israeli government. Regardless of the court’s verdict, his legacy in Israeli politics will remain that of a controversial and divisive figure.

Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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