Avigdor Lieberman: Israel’s far-right firebrand quits over fraud charges

Exit weakens Netanyahu coalition ahead of national elections

Jerusalem

Israel’s powerful Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, announced his resignation, a day after an indictment for breach of trust was filed against him by the country’s attorney general, in a move that shakes up the election campaign and heavily effects Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s election calculations.

Mr Lieberman continued to maintain his innocence and indicated that he could return to politics in time for the national elections in January, if he was cleared or could reach a plea bargain.

“Even though I know I did not break any law ... I have decided to resign from my position as foreign minister and deputy prime minister,” he said. “After 16 years of investigations against me I can end this issue quickly without delay and completely clear my name.”

Mr Lieberman said he made the decision after conferring with his lawyers and his election campaign staff. “I am doing this because I am convinced that Israel’s citizens should be able to go to the polls after this matter has been settled ... and I can continue to serve the state of Israel and Israel’s citizens as part of a strong united leadership that will cope with the security, economic and political challenges it faces,” he said.

He was charged on Thursday with breach of trust in a fraud and money-laundering case that threatens to upend the Israeli political system just a month before parliamentary elections.

The Soviet-born Mr Lieberman is the head of Yisrael Beitenu, an ultranationalist party that is especially popular with immigrants from the former Soviet Union. With a tough-talking message that has questioned the loyalty of Israel’s Arab minority, sharply criticized the Palestinians and confronted Israel’s foreign critics, he has at times alienated Israel’s allies while becoming an influential voice in national politics.

Yisrael Beitenu and Mr Netanyahu’s Likud Party recently joined forces and are running together on a joint list in the 22 January parliamentary elections. Opinion polls have predicted the list would be by far the largest bloc in parliament and would lead a new coalition government.

Mr Netanyahu is heavily favoured to win the premiership, but Mr Lieberman’s departure will have a major impact on negotiations to build a governing coalition. Mr Lieberman is Yisrael Beitenu’s founder and its main attraction for voters. If he were forced to step aside, Mr Netanyahu would be stuck with a list of “leftovers” with little public appeal.

The former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, of the new Movement Party, issued a statement welcoming Mr Lieberman’s departure. “Avigdor Lieberman did the right thing,” she wrote.

Prosecutors have long suspected that Mr Lieberman illicitly received millions of dollars from businessmen and laundered the cash through straw companies in eastern Europe while he was a lawmaker and Cabinet minister. In his decision on Thursday, the Attorney General, Yehuda Weinstein, said the case was not strong enough.

“I am convinced that there is no reasonable chance of a conviction in the offences Lieberman is suspected of and that case should be closed,” Mr Weinstein said in his decision. Instead, Mr Lieberman was charged with the lesser offence of receiving official material related to the investigation against him from the former Israeli ambassador to Belarus.

The ambassador, Zeev Ben-Aryeh,  had received the documents from the Foreign Ministry, which wanted additional information on Mr Lieberman from the Belarus authorities. Mr Ben-Aryeh reached a plea bargain in the case earlier this year.

At a press conference on Thursday night, Mr Lieberman said that when he received the information from the ambassador, he immediately ripped it up and flushed it down the toilet because he knew it was wrong.

The blunt-talking Mr Lieberman, a native of Moldova, has amassed power with support from immigrants from the Soviet Union and other Israelis drawn to his broadsides against Israeli Arabs and doveish groups, as well as the Palestinians and European governments.

AP

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