Avigdor Lieberman: Israel's embattled Foreign Minister steps down

 

Jerusalem

Formally stepping down Sunday to face corruption charges, Israel's outspoken foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, predicted that he would soon return to his post after expedited legal proceedings.

Lieberman announced Friday that he would resign after Israel's attorney general said he would indict Lieberman on charges of fraud and breach of trust, but not on more serious suspicions of illicitly receiving millions of dollars from foreign business tycoons while holding public office.

A blunt ultra-nationalist who has accused the Palestinians of "diplomatic terrorism" and called for a loyalty oath by Israel's Arab citizens, Lieberman is expected to remain a powerful force in Israeli politics and is running in upcoming elections.

Lieberman's party, Yisrael Beteinu, the third-largest faction in parliament, is campaigning on a joint ticket with the Likud party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

After submitting his resignation letter Sunday to Netanyahu, who will now handle the foreign portfolio, Lieberman said that his departure from office, weeks before the vote on Jan. 22, would be brief.

"I am leaving temporarily," he told reporters. "I assume that this time the break will be very short."

Lieberman said he hoped legal proceedings would be speedy and while not ruling out a plea bargain, he asserted that he intended to argue his case in court.

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein announced last week that he would indict Lieberman for promoting Israel's former ambassador to Belarus after the envoy gave the foreign minister confidential information on moves by the Israeli authorities to investigate his suspected financial dealings there.

Lieberman has said he wants to settle the case before the elections. Although that is viewed as unlikely, he is legally permitted to run for parliament as long as he is not convicted.

Polls have shown that the combined list of Netanyahu's and Lieberman's parties could win close to 40 seats in the 120-member legislature, emerging as the dominant faction.

Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that Lieberman's indictment and resignation were unlikely to affect voting patterns, particularly among backers of his party.

"His public is not going to vote against him because of this," Hazan said.

Even with a trial underway, Lieberman could take a seat in the elected parliament, but could not be appointed minister, pending the result of the court proceedings.

Given the structure of Lieberman's party, in which he wields full control, "he doesn't have to be a member of parliament or the government, but still pulling all the strings from the outside, making all the major decisions and being the major vote magnet for the party," Hazan said.

Originally from Moldova and living in a West Bank settlement, Lieberman has strong support among the 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union in Israel as well as other voters who share his ultra-nationalist views.

Along with his broadsides at the Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, he recently lashed out at European nations for their protests against new plans for expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Lieberman charged that Europe was willing to sacrifice Israel to appease Islamic radicals, comparing Israel's situation to that of Czechoslovakia on the eve of the 1938 Nazi invasion.

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