The trial of Israel’s former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman on charges of fraud and breach of trust opened at a Jerusalem court Sunday in a case which will decide the former bouncer’s political future.
Wearing a dark-blue suit and white shirt, Lieberman was silent as he entered the courtroom and did not speak to waiting reporters, an AFP correspondent at Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court said.
Lieberman is accused of having promoted an Israeli ambassador who provided him with confidential information about a police investigation into his affairs.
The hearing before a panel of three judges began promptly at 1200 GMT and was expected to be brief and focus on procedural issues, with Lieberman expected to plead not guilty.
In mid-December, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein said he was charging Lieberman with two offences over the promotion of the former envoy to Belarus, Zeev Ben Aryeh, in an incident dating back to 2008 when Lieberman was an MP.
Lieberman immediately resigned his cabinet post but retains his status as an MP, expressing confidence that he will be cleared of all charges and will return to his job as foreign minister.
According to the indictment, Lieberman was allegedly tipped off by Ben Aryeh that police had contacted their counterparts in Belarus for help with an inquiry into his affairs.
He is then suspected of seeking to reward Ben Aryeh with a posting to Latvia.
An outspoken hardliner who has been investigated by police several times since 1996, Lieberman denies the charges, saying he is eager to vindicate himself in court.
Among the witnesses due to appear is Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who heads the ministry’s appointments committee. Lieberman allegedly failed to tell him that Ben Aryeh had informed him about the police probe.
Ben Aryeh is also expected to take the stand.
Lieberman’s main concern will be to avoid a conviction including both a finding of “moral turpitude” and a prison sentence, which would bar him from serving as a minister for seven years.
“Lieberman has to be acquitted or, at the very least, to escape from being stained with moral turpitude,” Maariv newspaper said.
“If the judges convict him of crimes of moral turpitude when they convict him of fraud and breach of trust over his role in the appointment of Zeev Ben Aryeh as the Israeli ambassador to Latvia, he will be forced to resign from the Knesset.”
Public radio said the next hearing was expected on April 25, followed by three more in quick succession.
Despite his resignation from the foreign ministry, Lieberman remains head of the hardline secular nationalist Yisrael Beitenu which ran on a joint list with the rightwing Likud of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, narrowly winning last month’s general election.
The list won 31 seats in the 120-member parliament, and Netanyahu is currently trying to piece together a coalition government.
Lieberman’s political future, however, will depend on the outcome of the trial.
Since Lieberman’s resignation, Netanyahu has himself served as interim foreign minister but he is reportedly seeking to reinstate his ally once the legal proceedings are over.