Tel Aviv — Israel’s political system is bracing for a shock.
More than a year after the police recommended indicting Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on corruption charges, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein is expected to make public this week a draft indictment that could result in the resignation of one of the country’s most powerful politicians.
Political observers say there’s even an outside chance that an indictment could destabilize Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s steady coalition and lead to new elections.
After an investigation that lasted more than a decade, the police in August 2009 recommended Lieberman be indicted for fraud, money laundering, bribery and breach of public trust. At the time, police claimed that millions of dollars were moved through a chain of companies and straw companies on his behalf.
About a year ago the police recommended he be indicted on charges of obstruction of justice, alleging he received classified information on the investigation against him from Israel’s then-ambassador to Belarus.
The foreign minister has charged that the allegations are part of a politically motivated investigation aimed at blocking his rising power.
Lieberman’s ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party is the largest coalition partner of Netanyahu, giving the foreign minister the power to bring down the government. Though Lieberman and party officials say that his political considerations are separate from the case and that he won’t withdraw from the coalition, political observers say that if the indictment is serious enough, all bets are off.
“If it is going to look as if Weinstein is going to support the most extreme harsh indictment, then Lieberman will be pushed to the corner and nothing is predictable,” said Hebrew University political science Professor Avraham Diskin. “People who are pushed to the corner may react in an unexpected way. If it’s war, it’s war.”
Israeli newspapers reported on Monday that an indictment draft is likely to come within days. Within months, Lieberman would be given the opportunity to rebut the accusations in a hearing with prosecutors, after which a final decision would be made on the terms of the indictment.
Though Israeli law doesn’t require that cabinet ministers resign in the case of an indictment, the Supreme Court said in a ruling two decades ago that a minister facing public prosecution shouldn’t continue to serve because of the damage to the image of the government. In fact, Lieberman has said that he would resign if indicted.
“It seems to me that that the consideration of image is sevenfold when at issue is a foreign minister, who represents the state,” said legal commentator Moshe Hanegbi on Israel Radio. “It also should be remembered that were a minor diplomat in the foreign service to be charged with any of the offenses attributed to Lieberman, they would not be allowed to represent the State of Israel.”
An indictment, though, could be months away. Still, Lieberman is likely to face public calls to step down once the attorney general makes his initial statement.
Yisrael Beiteinu spokesman Tal Nahum declined to comment on the case, but said that an indictment would not force the withdrawal of Yisrael Beitenu.
“It’s two different things, the coalition and the foreign minister’s legal situation,” he said. “There is no connection between the two.”
But Israeli commentators don’t agree, and some have suggested that Lieberman is stepping up criticism of the government in order to prepare himself a political exit strategy from the coalition in case of a serious indictment.
Earlier this week, in response to Israel’s reaching an unofficial cease-fire with Hamas after days of fighting and, Lieberman attacked Netanyahu’s decision to seek calm instead of a harsher retaliation against Hamas.
“Defining the goal as ‘quiet’ is a big mistake,” Lieberman said, according to the daily newspaper Israel Today. “The quiet is exploited by Hamas to increase its strength, and this increase means turning the terror gangs into a regular army, with another battalion and another company and another brigade.”
Many in Israel believe Lieberman is aspiring to build support so his Yisrael Beiteinu party can supplant Netanyahu’s Likud party as the largest right-wing party in Israel. That would make him a candidate for prime minister.
An indictment would be a serious blow to those plans. However, political commentators suggested that if the charges are modest, Lieberman might be able to salvage his political career with a plea bargain.
On the other hand, if he were convicted and sentenced to jail, that would disqualify him from politics for several years.
Shlomo Madmon, a Likud activist, said he doesn’t expect Lieberman to withdraw from the government because he’ll have a hard time convincing voters that the decision was made for the national interest and not narrow political considerations. What’s more, such a mood could imperil the right wing’s majority in parliament.
A decision on indictment has been pending from the tenure of Attorney General Menachem Mazuz. After Weinstein replaced Mazuz, the new attorney general has missed several self-declared deadlines to announce a decision on indictment. Israeli reporters said that the attorney general is likely to leave the most severe charge of bribery out of the indictment.
A harsh indictment would open the door to the possibility that Lieberman could wage an election campaign amid a corruption trial, which would be portrayed as a witch hunt — a strategy that Shas used effectively in the 1999 elections amid charges against party leader Aryeh Deri.
“He’ll say, ‘We have to make a statement, they are prosecuting me for my political views. Help me to show me that you support me,’” said a Russian Israeli political analyst who asked to remain anonymous.
But Lieberman would have to be careful not to alienate voters who are likely to suspect him of using an indictment for political gain, said the analysts.
“He cannot quit out of the blue. He has to develop a strategy to convince his voters that going to elections is the right thing to do. Lieberman is known as someone who is promoting coalition stability and not going to elections,” the analyst said. “It won’t be a short process from indictment to new elections. The whole process can take up to a year.”