Tel Aviv — It was to be the misconduct case of the century and trumpet a message that the highest of ethical standards is expected in Israeli public life. But when proceedings against Avigdor Lieberman ended with his acquittal on November 6, Israel was left more cynical than ever about the state’s ability to fight corruption.
The saga was one of the juiciest in Israeli legal history. Lieberman, one of the most influential, if polarizing, figures in Israeli politics today, had been under police investigation for a decade-and-a-half on suspicion of various crimes. Among these was the allegation that he had illicitly received hundreds of millions of dollars from businessmen, laundered through straw companies headquartered abroad.
During the years of investigation into his affairs, he turned his party, Yisrael Beiteinu, into a major political force, and rose to become foreign minister — a position he has now resumed, after having taken a year’s hiatus to face the charges following his formal indictment.
But attorneys who worked the case for years felt they saw it falling apart before their eyes even before the judges took their seats. Despite the objections of state prosecutors Moshe Lador and Avia Alef, who headed the prosecution’s economic crimes department, their boss, Israel’s attorney general, closed the main line of inquiry and charged Lieberman only on an incidental alleged misdemeanor.
To Alef, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein’s decision was a mistake: There had “never been a clearer case” for the main accusations, she told the Israel-based Markerweek magazine in May. But instead of a bombshell, the indictment, when it finally came late last year, was more of a firecracker.
Lieberman still faced the likelihood possibility of being barred from serving in public office if convicted. But instead of seeking to expose his financial dealings, the indictment merely accused the then- (and now again) foreign minister of trying to reward a diplomat who gave him a heads-up about confidential judicial inquiries into his affairs in 2008.
The judge, who in Israel decides cases rather than a jury, disputed fact after fact claimed by the prosecution. In the end, the prosecution was left clutching at one straw: Did Lieberman act improperly by failing to report his close relationship with the diplomat in question to the Foreign Ministry’s appointments committee? The judges said yes — but unanimously decided that it wasn’t a serious enough omission to convict him of breach of trust.
Among Israel’s leading jurists there is a feeling that the state prosecution gambled away the big case for what it saw as a safe bet — and lost. “This case was possibly the tip of an iceberg which will never be uncovered,” Michael Partem, vice chairman of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, an anti-corruption group, told the Forward.
The watchdog organization has called for Weinstein’s resignation. The acquittal following the dropping of the main case “calls into question the whole decision-making process” regarding the investigation of public officials, Partem said. Weinstein has responded to critics, saying he did his “duty” of presenting a case and letting the court decide.