Witnesses take stand in trial of Israel's Lieberman

A key witness in the trial of Israel's former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman took the stand Thursday as his trial on charges of fraud and breach of trust began at Jerusalem Magistrate's Court.

At a first hearing on February 17, Lieberman pleaded not guilty to the charges in a trial which will decide the one-time nightclub bouncer's political future.

He is suspected of trying to secure an ambassadorial posting for Israeli diplomat Zeev Ben Aryeh who provided him with confidential information about a police investigation into his affairs in 2008.

At Thursday's hearing, Ben Aryeh took the stand, but went back on earlier statements to the police in which he admitted asking for Lieberman's help in securing the post, several Israeli newspapers reported.

Asked by one of the prosecutors why he, as a professional employee of the foreign ministry, had appealed to a politician for help, he said: "I don't recall that I asked for help from Mr Lieberman."

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 suspected of then 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.

Earlier this week, Israeli media published leaked transcripts of Lieberman's police investigation in which he apparently referred to Ben Aryeh as an "idiot."

Another key witness who is expected to take the stand when the trial resumes early next week is Lieberman's former deputy and confidant Danny Ayalon, who headed the ministry's appointments committee at the time.

Lieberman allegedly failed to tell him that Ben Aryeh had informed him about the police probe.

Ayalon was unceremonially ousted from the electoral list of Lieberman's hardline Yisrael Beitenu party ahead of the January election in a move which was never explained.

When it became clear in December that Lieberman was to face trial, he immediately resigned his cabinet post, although he retains his status as an MP.

He has expressed confidence he will be cleared on all charges and return to the foreign ministry.

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.

Since Lieberman's resignation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has himself served as interim foreign minister, but he is reportedly seeking to reinstate his ally once the legal proceedings are over.