Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s firebrand former foreign minister, began the fight for his political life in a tiny Jerusalem courtroom earlier today, as he pleaded not guilty to fraud charges.
Mr Lieberman is hoping that at least a partial acquittal will allow him to return to government in a matter of weeks.
In court 216, the two cases immediately before Mr Lieberman’s in Jerusalem’s Municipal complex involved men wearing handcuffs and ankle shackles.
Mr Lieberman – who perhaps looked slightly nervous as he arrived - was afforded better treatment, bypassing the airport-style security along with his six or seven lawyers at the entrance to the building.
The Soviet-born politician – who already has a conviction for assaulting a 12 year-old boy several years ago – heard prosecutors allege he failed to report a leak of classified documents by Zeev Ben Aryeh, at the time Israel’s ambassador to Belarus, which detailed a another police probe into Mr Lieberman’s affairs. In return, it is alleged, Mr Ben Aryeh was offered the post of ambassador to Latvia.
In a written submission to the court, Mr Lieberman denied that he had asked then deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon to advance Mr Ben Aryeh’s appointment in the ministry’s appointments committee.
His defence team argued that, “the defendant did not exceed his authority in any way, nor did he commit any criminal offence.” Mr Lieberman formally entered a plea of, “not guilty on all counts.”
Mr Lieberman stepped down as foreign minister in December after the he was indicted, but vowed at the time that he would return to government after being acquitted. Last month he shared a stage with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as their combined parties Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu won most seats in the country’s general election.
Mr Netanyahu is currently working on forming a new coalition government, but is reserving a space in the event of Mr Lieberman’s return – it is thought that he favours a return to the foreign ministry.
Mr Netanyahu may appoint a temporary foreign minister and incongruously, there is a chance that Mr Lieberman could be convicted but still become a member of the next government. He is hoping that even if found guilty he will avoid the further stain that he acted with ‘moral turpitude’.
If his actions are considered to fall within the definition of moral turpitude, Mr Lieberman’s political career will be over – he will be forced by law not only to give up his ambition of serving in the cabinet, but he will also have to resign as an member of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.
The trial will become even more of a political drama later in the week when Mr Ayalon gives evidence on behalf of the prosecution. Speaking on Saturday, Mr Ayalon insisted that Mr Lieberman had insisted on Mr Ben Aryeh’s appointment should be pushed through. Mr Ayalon said that he had, “resisted the pressure” and insisted that the job shouldn’t be given to Mr Ben Aryeh. He added that Mr Lieberman , “did not earn the trust of the international community and therefore should not have a second term as foreign minister.”
Mr Lieberman had notably testy relationships with foreign counterparts, and is thought to have had particularly frosty meetings with the former US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.
Mr Ayalon – a former Israeli ambassador to the United States – was removed from Likud-Beiteinu list ahead of last month’s election.