On the face of it, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman's mission looks easy. In the aftermath of the broad indictment, which was much ballyhooed a year ago, the little that's left is a small clause pertaining to the appointment of Ze'ev Ben Aryeh as ambassador to Latvia as a reward for leaking information about the investigation into the minister. Now all he has to do is convince the court that he was in no way involved in the appointment and claim that the Foreign Ministry's eight-member appointment committee voted conscientiously. In reality, this is almost a mission impossible.
For Foreign Ministry officials to vote "conscientiously" when it comes to a nominee whom the minister wants to advance is tantamount to professional suicide. Before Foreign Ministry officials enter the committee's conference room, they bid their consciences farewell. For the last 29 years in which I have been covering the Foreign Ministry, I cannot recall even one incident in which a committee member dared to defy the minister or his representative on the committee. (In Ben Aryeh's case, the representative, who also chaired the meeting, was Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon.)
The officials know full well that a "nay" against the minister's nominee is declaring war on the man who determines their professional fate. In an interview to the Israeli daily Ha'aretz last year, the Foreign Ministry's Inspector-General Victor Harel leveled scathing criticism at Ben Aryeh's appointment as ambassador to Latvia and before that to Belarus (where he had handed Liberman the confidential material).
"We vetted him when he was the ambassador in Minsk and arrived at the conclusion that he was dysfunctional," Harel related, and elaborated: "Employees were on the breadline and he wasn't even aware of that." According to him, Ben Aryeh's appointment to Latvia was fundamentally wrong since eight months earlier the director-general's office disseminated an internal report about the ambassador's lacking performance in his previous tour.
Harel's remarks serve as further proof that the appointment committee is the foreign minister's rubber stamp. The Liberman-Ben Aryeh case is not uncommon. I know of a case in which the committee voted unanimously to appoint a candidate who did not speak French as the ambassador in Paris, although there were much better-qualified contenders who were fluent in French. What played in favor of the contender was the fact that the minister wanted to free up the position that person was holding, in order to appoint someone else in his stead. The committee has more than once supported the promotion of fairly junior candidates while passing over senior and qualified personnel simply because that's what the minister wanted. The committee members and senior ministry officials restrict their criticism to whispers at the cafeteria or press interviews on the day after their retirement.
This week, the media reported that the State Attorney's Office was thinking of taking a deposition from the members of the appointment committee who had endorsed Ze'ev Ben Aryeh as ambassador to Latvia. As a result, the arraignment against Liberman, which was slated to be served on Dec. 19 to the Magistrate Court in Jerusalem just 48 hours after his resignation, was postponed. This may delay the trial and upset Liberman's plans to conclude the affair before the general election on Jan. 22, 2013.
It remains unclear why the Israeli police did not take depositions from the committee members earlier, and why the State Attorney's Office did not make sure that those testimonies were found in the voluminous dossier over which dozens of investigators and attorneys toiled for many years. It's hard to believe that there would be any committee member who, under oath, would tell the court that their vote was based solely on a professional evaluation of the candidate's qualifications and that they put aside the candidate's affinity to the minister.
When asked how he is doing, Avigdor Liberman tells interested parties, "It's paradise." In this case, we can't be sure that this is what awaits him.
Akiva Eldar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Ha'aretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent.