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Analysis: Was Liberman the Manafort mole?

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman listens during a joint press conference with U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, Israel, Friday, April 21, 2017.
Jonathan Ernst/Pool Photo via AP

After court documents revealed that a "senior Israeli official" secretly helped US President Donald Trump’s disgraced former campaign chief to drive a wedge between the Obama administration and Ukraine’s pro-European opposition in 2012, speculation has fallen primarily on whether Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman is the official implicated.

At this point, all that speculation means little, as Liberman himself tends to cultivate some aura of mystery. The John Le Carre style rumors are actually based on very little information.

The most convincing piece of evidence is an official statement issued by Liberman during his tenure as Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2012 condemning the dangerously anti-Semitic leader of Ukraine's far-right Svoboda party and its then partner and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

There is nothing strikingly suspicious in the statement issued by Liberman, in which he called on Ukrainians not to vote for what he defined as the "neo- Nazi" Svoboda party, which was then in alliance with Tymoshenko’s “Fatherhood” party. In fact few months later, as first published in i24NEWS, 68 Israeli Parliament members signed and published a similar call.

But Liberman’s statement was different in that it was made as foreign minister, an office that normally avoids the sensitivities of domestic politics of other countries.

Liberman’s then-deputy Danny Ayalon, another target of speculation, denies any knowledge of such a statement and called for an investigation into Manafort’s Israeli link. Liberman has himself called to open a probe into the identity of the mysterious “senior official”.

Even more intriguing is the fact that the statement was issued in Russian only (a language that Liberman, who immigrated to Israel from Moldova, knows perfectly). It was therefore seemingly addressed at a very specific crowd – that of Russian President Vladimir Putin who was then supportive of popular Timoshenko’s rival, former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

Tymoshenko herself, once the icon of Ukraine and the orange revolution, fell in and out of grace with the Kremlin over two decades.

Liberman, known for his good relations with Putin, has a history of independent opinions about elections in the former Soviet Union. In 2011 Legislative elections, he was the first one to meet then PM Putin and congratulate him on "fair, free and democratic elections”. It was a strange reaction considering that world leaders and Western monitors condemned the voting process, with some even calling it a "fraud”.

David Aidelman, a Russian speaking political advisor who worked for years with former Ukrainian PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk, told i24NEWS that the concern and condemnation in Lieberman’s statement were in fact “Israeli consensus those days."

"Anybody who hears head of Svoboda party reminisce about ancestors up in arms killing Jews and Russians should be really worried,” he said.

Still, he cannot explain the unusual way Liberman chose to express his opinion.

Lily Galili is a feature writer, analyst of Israeli society and expert on immigration from the former Soviet Union. She is the co-author of "The Million that Changed the Middle East."

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