Tel Aviv — Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election as prime minister has long been considered a forgone conclusion. But his No. 2, former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, has inadvertently stolen away the campaign spotlight after being indicted on charges of fraud and breach of trust.
Instead of the campaign narrative focusing on Netanyahu and the absence of popular rivals for the prime ministership, for the last week the main storyline has focused on the fate of one of Israel’s most powerful politicians and most diplomatically provocative foreign ministers.
Though Netanyahu has tied his political fortunes to a partnership between his Likud Party and Lieberman’s ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu Party, the indictment isn’t expected to erode the overwhelming lead of the “Likud-Beiteinu” juggernaut in the polls, according to analysts and public opinion polls.
“Israel Beiteinu and Likud have a disdain for the courts in Israel,” said Mitchell Barak, an Israeli American pollster and longtime Likud backer. “They feel it’s a bastion of the left.”
“Moderate, rule-of-law Likudniks have already left the party,” he added, referring to liberal Likud traditionalists who believe in the robust independent judicial system touted by Menachem Begin.
Lieberman’s Sabbath-eve resignation marked a rare public retreat that was forced on him by charges that he promoted a Foreign Ministry diplomat who illegally leaked information from a police corruption investigation into his business dealings. But it was aimed at neutralizing collateral damage that could have been caused by Lieberman breaking with political precedent that requires ministers under indictment to step down.
“They didn’t have any other choice,” said Shlomo Aronson, a political science professor at Hebrew University. “The opposition would have made political capital out of the fact that the Mr. Netanyahu is collaborating in the cabinet with a potential convicted felon.”
Now that Lieberman has bid the Foreign Ministry farewell, the central question of the campaign has shifted to whether Lieberman will be appointed as a senior minister in the next Netanyahu cabinet. The former foreign minister has called for a swift trial and verdict for before the election, and Netanyahu expressed hope Lieberman would return to a top spot.
Aronson and other experts point out that justice in Israel’s legal system does not usually move at such a brisk clip.
“The issue is whether he will be able to serve in the next government,” he said. “Lieberman’s hope is that the procedure will be short and it will be over before the election. This doesn’t depend on Mr. Lieberman. The judiciary operates according to its own logic, and it may take its time.”
In nearly four years as foreign minister, Lieberman has developed a reputation for blunt statements that have rankled many in Israel and abroad. Alon Liel, a former Foreign Ministry director general, said that Lieberman focused on developing Israeli ties with Eastern European countries while letting relations in the Middle East wither.
“His ideology is that we are Europeans, and we will never fit in to the Middle East,” said Liel, who thinks it’s too early to say whether Lieberman will return to the ministry. “He invested a lot of energy with Eastern Europe and Balkan countries, with a lot of success.”
At the same, Lieberman was one of the main opponents of concessions that would have led to reconciliation between Turkey and Israel after the dispute over the Gaza blockade in which Israeli soldiers killed nine attackers on the Mavi Marmara, the ship that challenged the blockade. “The crisis with Turkey is definitely partially because of Lieberman,” he said.
The key date in the Lieberman calculation is not the Election Day, set for Jan. 22, but the subsequent period of political horse-trading necessary to build a coalition and cabinet. That usually takes from two to four weeks.
The other factor that will determine Lieberman’s fate is whether — if he is found guilty — the judge will declare the infraction as having been carried out with “moral turpitude,” a declaration that would seriously damage Lieberman’s aspirations to return, and possibly one day run for prime minister.
For now, the Lieberman saga is keeping the campaign agenda far away from the socioeconomic agenda touted by the opposition Labor Party.
“It’s a good smoke screen,” said Mitchell Barak. “This takes the focus away from issues that the Likud has no answer to: social issues. Better to be defending Lieberman rather than be talking about how the middle class is going to make a living.”
The five-page charge sheet on Lieberman released last week alleges that Ze’ev Ben Ariyeh, a former Israeli ambassador to Belarus, in 2008 tipped off Lieberman to an overseas investigation by Israeli police into Lieberman’s alleged links to the straw companies.
A year later, when Lieberman had become foreign minister, he allegedly pushed to have Ben Ariyeh appointed as one of his senior aide and, later, as ambassador to Latvia — while refraining from telling about the leak.
Ben Ariyeh admitted to leaking the info, and, as part of a plea bargain, he was sentenced in October by the Jerusalem Magistrates Court to four months of community service. Lieberman says he made no use of the information and that he considered the leak a momentary lapse by Ben Ariyeh that didn’t warrant staining his career.
Early in the week the story took another unexpected turn: Channel 10 television news reported that Israel’s police never bothered to question Foreign Ministry staff on the committee responsible for Ben Ariyeh’s promotion about the process, a potentially glaring oversight in the investigation.
The attorney general’s announcement comes after six and a half years of police investigations and legal deliberations concerning several shell companies, allegedly under Lieberman’s control, that received millions of dollars from private businessmen over seven years. Those charges, which included money laundering and bribery, were dropped for lack of evidence.
Russian immigrant backers of Lieberman are likely to see the decision to drop the bigger case as confirmation of Lieberman’s claims that he was targeted by leftist law enforcement officials who want to use the legal system to block popular support for him at the ballot box. According to the pro-Netanyahu Israel Hayom newspaper, about 70 percent of Russian Israelis support Likud-Beiteinu.
The Russian media “ask why, instead of debating Lieberman’s ideology, the left was spreading racist messages and tried to use the judicial system to settle the score,” said Arik Elman, a Russian Israeli political analyst.
“If the prosecutors had managed to prove that Lieberman received bribes and did favors in return, the public would probably turn on Lieberman, but nothing remotely like it shows up even in the attorney general’s report. The rest is a gibberish to average Israeli.”