Early elections? It all comes back to Lieberman

The investigation of Avigdor Lieberman is not just another case. It is the case. It is a powder keg. These are alleged clever acts of fraud that went on for years, a “method” rather than a “mistake.”

Mordechai Gilat
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Is his Tal Law replacement proposal a result of the investigation against him?


Photo credit: AP


Fighting corruption: Journalist Yaakov Ahimeir says those convicted of moral turpitude should be shut out of public office.


Photo credit: Dudi Vaaknin


Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Is his Tal Law replacement proposal a result of the investigation against him?


Photo credit: AP


Five months ago, with the help of my colleagues Uzi Dayan and Michal Shabat, I took my readers on what I described as a “walking tour along the trail of the future battles of Israel’s political upper echelon.” When I marked a date for the next elections, many people thought that I was delusional or misreading the facts, and that the elections would be held on the stated date in October 2013. You are simply misguided, one reader wrote, and you are misleading others.


The headline back then was “Black January,” the month in which the decision was supposed to be made regarding Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s case (he is being investigated for corruption and other charges) and the case of the Carmel fire disaster in late 2010. Beneath the headline was written: “This is the starting point for a long and interesting tour that will last several months, in a country full of criminal cases and governmental failures. At the end of the tour, evidently at the beginning of the summer, we will reach the last stop: the scheduling of early elections in Israel.”


Well, now we have reached the last stop of the tour and the elections are around the corner. Now Comrade Lieberman is crying out, seeking credit for this accomplishment and waving the banner of his party Yisrael Beitenu. He explains in all sincerity that it stems from his demand that the ultra-Orthodox serve in the army.


After having been in a coma for three months, has the party chairman suddenly remembered that its platform includes a demand to repeal the Tal Law? Has he suddenly remembered the coalition agreement with the Likud on the matter? Suddenly he is losing sleep over the fact that the burden of army service is being borne unequally?


Is that the story? I fear that Lieberman is a bit confused. The real story is his criminal case, which has been on the attorney-general’s burner for more than a year.


This case is not just another case. It is the case. And time is of the essence. This is no trifling matter. It is a powder keg. These are alleged clever acts of fraud that went on for years, a “method” rather than a “mistake.” We are talking about enormous sums of money – millions of dollars that were allegedly funneled into secret bank accounts that were under Lieberman’s control. The purpose of these convoluted financial transfers was apparently to make it difficult to expose his secret overseas bank accounts.


At issue are straw companies and several individuals who were under surveillance. A source involved in the surveillance described them as follows: “These are people that a normative person would keep as much distance as possible from. Certainly a political man, certainly a member of Knesset, certainly a minister. It’s unbelievable that someone who became Israel’s foreign minister reached the kinds of places that he did in this case.”


Will all of it come to light during the trial?


„I hope that this important case will be dealt with in court,” the source says. „Without a plea bargain. Without misleading the public with stories about difficulties in the case and the need for a deal. Everything that happened during Ehud Olmert’s trial will happen in this one, too. Let everything be laid bare before the public. Let there be in this case what you, Dayan and Shabat like to call transparency.”


Does the Lieberman case have tough problems?


He laughs. “Do you know of any criminal case against a public figure that doesn’t have problems? Where it’s all built on voluntary confessions by suspects? I don’t. Also, are you familiar with Moshe Katsav’s case? Do you know how many holes there were in it, how many problems, how many difficulties and real differences of opinion? Do you remember what some of your colleagues said and wrote in the media and how it all ended? Do you remember where the former president is now?”




“Don’t bother me with ‘meaning’ and conclusions. What I want to say is that is that the Lieberman case relies on a large and solid kernel of alleged evidence. As of now, I don’t understand why the State Prosecutor’s Office decided to ignore the police’s recommendation on the matter of taking bribes – a large and, in my opinion, unnecessary gift that was given to Lieberman – but all right. Even without the bribery, this case is supposedly tougher and scarier than other cases that the public knows about. I’m putting that mildly.”


The last thing that could possibly be said of Lieberman is that he is stupid. He is not. Still, the question is asked once more: Was it only the criminal case that caused the foreign minister to pull the Tal Law out of the drawer after three years of embarrassing surrender to the haredim?


I don’t know people’s innermost thoughts and motives, but we can assume that Lieberman believed elections would lead to a freeze in the case’s legal proceedings, that the moment of truth would be delayed again for a long period of time – that the honorable minister would be able to run in the elections as chairman of Yisrael Beiteinu, gather strength, create a feeling that he was not someone to be trifled with, to hang on for half a year, a year, maybe more, and then to try to get a good plea bargain.


The emphasis is on a good plea bargain, because as far as he is concerned, sitting behind bars is out of the question. Anything but that.


We said that Lieberman is not stupid, and when he takes a good look around, he sees his best friend, former Shas leader Aryeh Deri with “ex-con” on his calling card. He sees David Appel, a mutual friend of his and Deri’s, about to go to prison for three and a half years. He sees the friend of all three, former Finance Minister Avraham Hirschson, spending his time studying religious texts in the Hermon Prison. He sees former President Katsav, with or without the orange prison uniform, in a cell in Maasiyahu. He sees former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert waiting for the verdict in the first of his criminal cases.


Now, along came Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein – the man designated as the one who would stop the slaughter of sacred cows – and reshuffled the deck for Lieberman. The attorney-general realized what sorts of trouble the system could be dragged into by waiting until the end of elections, and hurried to announce that his decision on the Lieberman case would be handed down within several weeks. He said in an official statement that the various law-enforcement authorities’ work on the cases of elected officials and candidates for office would go on as planned even on the eve of elections.


In other words, Lieberman is in trouble. The indictment will be submitted well before the elections. This train left the station some time ago.


The day that Weinstein’s all-clear was sounded, as if by coincidence, an indictment was filed against Ze’ev Ben Aryeh, Lieberman’s beloved friend and Israel’s former ambassador to Belarus. He is accused of an extremely serious crime: obstruction of justice. The law stipulates, with good reason, that the maximum punishment for that offense is three years’ imprisonment.


There is no need to say that the ambassador admitted, as part of a plea bargain (which was unnecessary in light of the events in the case), that he had worked to sabotage the criminal investigation against Lieberman. He admitted that he received “extremely sensitive information” from Israeli law-enforcement authorities that he was asked to hand over to the legal authorities in Belarus.


Of course, he knew that Lieberman was not allowed to receive any information about the case. He knew that he was not allowed to tell his friend what the detectives from Israel were seeking, whom they were interested in, what material and accounts they wanted. He admitted that he opened a classified document and photocopied it, and when Lieberman came to the Belarus Embassy for a visit, he divulged the information verbally and handed it over in writing. He admits that he worked to sabotage the investigation.


Lieberman, of course, did not tell him: Excuse me, Mr. Ambassador. I do not want to receive this information from you. You are misusing your position and breaking the law severely. Lieberman also did not report the ambassador’s grave act to the police, the State Prosecutor’s Office or the officials in charge of the Foreign Ministry. On the contrary: He aided and abetted an obstruction of justice.


Even worse, he made sure to reward him later on, when he became foreign minister and appointed him to a high position in his office. A corrupt ambassador in the position of a high-ranking adviser in his court suited him just fine.


How does the State Prosecutor’s Office treat a corrupt former ambassador? Does it ask the court to send him to jail for two years, or at least one, for such a serious crime? Oh, no. The Committee for Public Compassion at the State Prosecutor’s Office went into action again with the usual excuses: The accused had already been removed from the public service. He is of advanced age (he has not even reached retirement age yet) and he has health problems. Is the „criminal du jour” healthy enough to break the law, but too sick to do time? Are we back in that movie again?


The answer is yes. It was agreed that the State Prosecutor’s Office would demand six months’ imprisonment with community service, while the defense would ask for four months only – and the court would decide. Once more, the State Prosecutor’s Office has turned punishment into a joke. Once more, it has single-handedly lowered the bar.


Then why won’t Lieberman like the deal? Because even according to the lax punishment in the ambassador’s case, his punishment is supposed to be harsher if and when he is convicted of the charges against him. That very bar will obligate him to do a few good years in prison. No magician will be able to conjure up a different sentence for him.


Now let us remember the example of former Minister Hirschson. The theft of which the former finance minister was convicted is equivalent in value to the crime of receiving an item under aggravated circumstances. The amount of money involved in Lieberman’s case is several times greater, and the case includes a component of alleged money-laundering of millions of dollars. The case includes an allegation of harassing an important witness, by Lieberman himself. There is another problem: The circumstances here are a good deal worse than in Hirschson’s case.


That being the case, where is Lieberman headed under such circumstances – toward a deal without actual jail time? To a deal without a conviction of moral turpitude? To a deal without his being removed from political life for good?


We must not give in to such a bizarre idea. If Lieberman is innocent, as he claims, let him prove it in court. If not, let him pay an appropriate price for his actions. Let him pay his debt to society and disappear from political life. There is no middle way.


In a sane country with sane journalism, there would have been no argument in the media over the following simple question: can a serial lawbreaker convicted of having taken bribes and of serious acts of fraud return to political life? The answer was clear and self-evident.


In a sane country, nobody would dare defend such madness. Nor would anyone try to justify it to the public. No one would allow the Knesset and the government to turn into a kind of halfway house for ex-cons released from prison. Nobody would allow white-collar criminals to be put in charge of billions that belong to the state. There is a limit to every prank.


In that country, people would realize that the job of the press is to lead to the cleaning of the civil service and not to encourage rotten apples to return to it. They would understand that its role was to protect the public and put it into the hands of people who had betrayed its trust. Journalists and politicians who did this would be ostracized.


But since we are not a sane country, it was important that we hear, on Independence Day, the words of Yaakov Ahimeir, recipient of the Israel Prize in the field of communications.


In the awards ceremony, after he spoke about the restraint that the press requires and the importance of the war on corruption, Ahimeir added, “It is likely that the fight against corruption would be more effective if those who wished to return to elected office even after having served prison time for a crime that carried moral turpitude were not allowed to do so. This is yet another aspect of the internal self-correcting that we need so much in our home. Let ethicists, ethical philosophers and jurists take note.”


His statements did not make headlines. Perhaps in all innocence, and perhaps because Israel has a press that is busy nurturing governmental corruption. Ahimeir’s statements just gave it chills. They were hard to swallow.


Last week, we told here about the difficult lives of the fourteen board members of Bank Leumi. We told about the big pit of fat of those who leap from meeting to meeting, including subcommittees, and receive 5,523 shekels (!) for attending each of them. We said that under such circumstances, the annual salary of some of them reached 600,000 shekels per year, that others received 800,000 shekels, and still others received a million and more.

We wondered in amazement: were such people capable of guarding the doors of a bank?


Could those who were in the golden cage of the board supervise it? Were the trustees capable of opposing the will of the board? Did they have the power to prevent the employment of dozens of workers while making hundreds of others take early retirement, as the new general manager, Rakefet Russak-Aminah, wishes to do?


Very doubtful. None of these guards at the gate will be in a hurry to walk away from the money pit. No such animal.


Because of this, Uzi Dayan asked the Governor of the Bank of Israel, Stanley Fischer, a simple question. Did 5,523 shekels per meeting, an amount 1.5 times greater than the minimum wage in Israel, seem to the Supervisor of Banks, Dudu Zaken, like a reasonable honorarium for attending? Did they intend to intervene? When Fischer spoke about the untenable disparities in Israeli society, was he also referring to the salaries of the board members?


Just like what happened a week ago, this time, too, the Bank of Israel chose, after three days of waiting, not to provide a direct answer to Dayan’s detailed questions. That is hard for it. The bank has chosen not to deal with the numbers that we mentioned or with such intolerable greed.


For years we have been writing here about the rot, the dysfunction and irregularities in Magen David Adom. For years we have written warnings here about what is going on there – the waste of money, the hedonism, the odd appointments, the tenders, favors provided to close associates and other assorted goings-on.


Now comes the state comptroller, whose new report, issued last week, gives us another peek into the terrible mismanagement in Magen David Adom.


This report shows that there are not, and have never been, any guards at the gate, that there is no real supervision of the director-general, that the organization has no real internal control, that important committees are not formed and hardly ever meet; that everything is just make-believe, that everything is on paper only, that people in high positions do not attend meetings, that nobody gets up and says: Folks, no more. Enough. We have to put an end to this internal chaos.


I read the dozens of pages of the report and remembered Dr. Noam Yifrah, the chairman of the working committee. Everything was managed in his court, under his very nose. He was one of the heroes of the series of reports on Magen David Adom. He was an exemplary person who drew no conclusions. Like other high-ranking people in the organization, he still has not learned his lesson.


What is happening in the case against Zvi Bar, the mayor of Ramat Gan, with its suspicions of bribery and fraud involving millions of shekels? He awaits the verdict. Nothing is happening. The case drags on and on and on. No rush. That is also what is happening with the case against the mayor of Petach Tikva, Yitzhak Ohayon; the fraud allegations against the mayor of Ramat Hasharon, Yitzhak Rochberger; and the bribery allegations against Dr. Ilan Bar of Assaf Harofeh hospital.


Everything is going slowly, slowly, slowly, fraying the nerves of the people who submitted the complaints, the witnesses and some of the victims. The state attorney’s office lost its fighting spirit in its flagship cases. Many of its people have lost interest. Defense attorneys are celebrating, and plea bargain deals are driving the police and the public, too, up a wall. Their reaction is understandable.


In-depth investigations? Cross-referenced intelligence? A judicial inquiry abroad? A waste of time. Some of the detectives have already drawn their conclusions. They are not even trying anymore.