“Power doesn’t corrupt people; people corrupt power.”—William Gaddis (1922-1998).
Much has been aired about the glaring defects of the current Israeli government—about how it rewards deceit, how it disregards disloyalty and how it undermines the founding precepts of Zionism. But one of its more egregious aspects, generally overlooked, surfaced, albeit obliquely, last week, with news of the imprisonment of several senior members of Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s faction, Yisrael Beiteinu.
“One of the largest cases ever of political corruption”
Former deputy minister Faina Kirschenbaum began her 10-year sentence at the Neve Tirtza women’s prison in Ramle for her role in arranging an extensive kickback scheme, widely considered one of the largest cases of political corruption the country has seen. Kirshenbaum, 66, was sentenced in July, following her conviction for bribery, tax offenses, money-laundering, fraud and breach of trust.
The Times of Israel reported that the charges against her involved inappropriately funneling large sums of money to various organizations, which allegedly made dubious “nepotistic appointments,” and channeled some of the funds to public-service officials in the form of cash kickbacks and benefits.
Apart from her prison sentence, the longest ever imposed on a serving or past Knesset member for corruption offenses, she was also fined almost one million shekels (more than a quarter-million dollars).
Convicted along with Kirschenbaum and sentenced to seven years imprisonment was David Godovsky, Yisrael Beiteinu’s chief of staff and reportedly Lieberman’s “right-hand man,” on charges that included bribery, facilitating bribes, conspiracy to commit a crime and fraudulently obtaining benefits under aggravated circumstances.
Kirschenbaum was in charge of the party’s so-called “coalition funds,” received by all parties in the government, which amounted to 1.2 billion shekels ($380 million) in public funds, allocated at the discretion of the party. According to the court’s ruling, Kirschenbaum took 2 million shekels in bribes for herself and her party.
Citing from the ruling, Haaretz noted: “[T]he accused bypassed proper norms of governance, taking public funds for her personal use … she distributed the booty she extricated from public coffers generously among her friends and family members, as well as taking some of it herself.”
Lieberman: The elephant in the room
Apart from the harshness of the sentences, what provoked raised eyebrows was an element perplexingly and perturbingly absent from the entire episode: any sign of the involvement of Yisrael Beiteinu boss Lieberman in Bennett’s crazy-quilted coalition.
For example, Baruch Kra, a well-known legal commentator, wrote: “[W] must discuss the elephant in the room—or, more precisely, the elephant in the public coffers—M.K. Avigdor Lieberman.”
He pointed out: “Lieberman, leader of the party from the day he established it, was not a suspect in this episode, was not questioned, did not even testify.
This is one of the puzzling lapses in this episode—because whichever way you look at it, it involved the coalition funds allocated to the party that he headed.”
Kra pondered: “Did he really not know anything of what happened there? Of what took place there?” He went on to refer to the 2016 testimony of one of the defendants-turned-state-witnesses, who described how money was transferred, concealed in parcels of fruit and cosmetics, to a Yisrael Beiteinu lobbyist, reportedly with the full knowledge of Lieberman.
Pointedly, he asked: “Was this not sufficient to at least summon Liberman to testify?”—and raised the question of whether the prosecution was still so shell-shocked from its failure, after a decade-and-a-half-long investigation, to prove charges against Lieberman in a previous proceeding, that it did not bother to probe into his awareness of what went on in his party.
Mysteriously disappearing witnesses
Similar—indeed, even more somber—sentiments were expressed by former Yisrael Beiteinu M.K. and erstwhile Lieberman colleague Danny Ayalon. Ayalon, who served as deputy foreign minister on behalf of Yisrael Beiteinu and Israel’s ambassador to the United States, wondered why Lieberman had not been indicted. Hinting heavily at foul play during Lieberman’s previous legal entanglement, he wrote: “There were three witnesses who disappeared … one witness recanted on her early testimony.”
Ayalon speculated that there might be “another reason” that Kirschenbaum opted not to implicate her boss and not to provide further information on his involvement: “[P]erhaps the smell of prison scares Kirschenbaum less than ending her life in some other way [sic].”
Even more explicit was a column by investigative journalist Yoav Yitzhak, who argued that Kirschenbaum (and Godovsky) could have received lighter sentences had they “agreed to provide information on Lieberman’s part in the offenses committed in this affair.”
However, according to Yitzhak, they both preferred to “keep their silence because of their concern for their personal safety and their wish to protect their families—and their desire to receive in the future, while serving their time in prison, compensation from Lieberman and/or oligarchs who are associates of his.”
Yitzhak provides a list of half a dozen witnesses who were supposed to testify against Lieberman in an earlier episode and met mysterious deaths, allegedly by suicide, or suffered sudden lapses of memory, preventing them from recalling previous information that they had provided.
He makes the case that the disturbing fate of previous witnesses and the hope of material compensation for loyalty to Lieberman compelled Kirschenbaum and Godovsky to hold their tongues rather than implicate the Yisrael Beiteinu head in any wrongdoing in which they were involved.
Clueless clutz or Cosa Nostra capo?
Indeed, anyone even remotely familiar with the inner works of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party would be aware of the highly centralized manner of its functioning and in which its decision-making process operates. Accordingly, it is difficult to accept the fact that Lieberman, who was closely involved with, and certainly aware of, everything and anything of consequence that transpired within the party would be oblivious to the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars accruing to the party—and would not at least be actively involved in approving their allocation.
It is thus difficult to disagree with Israel Hayom journalist Ariel Kahana, who found it “astonishing that the party chairman [Lieberman] was not even questioned” following testimony that he was fully apprised of the illicit money transfers.
There are clearly only two possibilities regarding Lieberman’s involvement in what has become known as the “Yisrael Beiteinu affair.”
The first is that, despite being highly implausible, Lieberman was unaware of the illegal monetary operations in his party. The second—and more plausible—alternative is that he was aware—perhaps even involved—in the illegal shenanigans that went on in his party.
Neither option bodes well for Israel.
If the former is true, the nation’s finance minister is hopelessly incompetent in managing the financial affairs of his own tightly controlled party, which necessarily augurs ill for his ability to manage the nation’s finances.
If the latter is correct, the man controlling the nation’s coffers is little more than a mafioso-style gangster, casting a Cosa Nostra-like shadow of fear over party members, who would rather languish in jail than risk the consequences of testifying against their “capo.”
Just another aspect of Bennett’s “government of change” to consider.
Martin Sherman is the founder & executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.
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