x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Avigdor Lieberman shrugs off corruption scandal

Possible indictment against the foreign minister is unlikely to shake government and observers believe a possible prosecution will not even deter him from running for prime minister.

The Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman speaks at a conference of his political party in Jerusalem. Israel's attorney general announced on Wednesday his plans to indict the foreign minister on corruption charges.
The Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman speaks at a conference of his political party in Jerusalem. Israel's attorney general announced on Wednesday his plans to indict the foreign minister on corruption charges.

TEL AVIV // The threat of corruption charges against Israel's foreign minister is unlikely to prompt the collapse of the governing coalition or deter the controversial politician from running for the premiership, analysts said yesterday.

Israel's justice ministry said this week that the attorney general was mulling indicting Avigdor Lieberman on several charges, including money laundering, fraud and tampering with a witness, unless he succeeds in clearing himself in a final hearing in which he could respond to the allegations.

An indictment could force Mr Lieberman, a figure known for making hard-line statements against the Palestinians, from his position as the second-most influential official in the ruling coalition.

The announcement sparked speculation in the Israeli media that an indictment could shake up the government, resulting in Mr Lieberman either resigning or being forced to leave it, as would be required should he be formally charged. Such a scenario would substantially weaken the coalition and most likely force an election earlier than the scheduled date in 2012.

Still, commentators said yesterday that a hearing could take months and that Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, could remain secure for at least another six months.

Mr Netanyahu himself views Mr Lieberman - whose far-right views are increasingly attractive to an electorate that is shifting rightward - more as a rival than a coalition partner and is seeking more time to attract right-wing supporters before the next election, analysts said.

The foreign minister's associates and lawyers said yesterday that he was not expected to leave the government. Yaron Kosteliz, one of Mr Lieberman's lawyers, yesterday was quoted on Israeli radio as saying that his client had "no intention of resigning" at this time. He added that he will demand at least six months to review the potential charges against Mr Lieberman before the country's top diplomat meets the attorney general. The decision on an indictment could take several more months, he added.

Mr Lieberman is not likely to let his legal troubles hinder his aim of becoming premier. Yossi Verter, a commentator for Haaretz newspaper, speculated yesterday that the foreign minister would try to reach a plea bargain to "get off with a fine and with moral turpitude."

He would then be required to quit his post and the parliament, and would choose a favourable time to take his party out of the coalition to prompt an election. "Then, it's on to his next goal: leader of the rightist bloc," wrote Mr Verter. "From there, he believes the road is paved to the premiership."

The scenario may be supported by the political backing that Mr Lieberman has drawn in recent years for stances including demanding loyalty oaths from Israel's Palestinian citizens and lambasting left-wing groups for damaging Israel's image abroad.

His Yisrael Beitenu party leapfrogged from garnering four parliamentary seats in the 1999 election to 15 slots in the 2009 ballot, becoming the third-largest political party and the second-biggest movement in the coalition.

The potential charges against Mr Lieberman, which he has repeatedly denied, have been investigated by the police for the past 15 years.

According to the justice ministry, they involve suspicions that Mr Lieberman used shell companies and third-party accounts to receive more than US$1.2 million (Dh4.4m) illicitly while in public office from figures such as businessmen with interests in Israel.

Mr Lieberman, according to the statement, tried to cover up these dealings through "methodical and protracted actions defrauding the public and national institutions," the statement said.

Mr Lieberman has said little since the justice ministry's announcement on Wednesday. His only remarks came that evening, when he spoke at a Yisrael Beitenu convention and his words appeared aimed at soothing concerns that the possible indictment could bring down the party.

"I know and you know that I have always acted in accordance with the law, and there is no reason to worry. After 15 years, I finally will have the opportunity to prove that I acted legally," he said, to a sustained standing ovation.

The foreign minister is far from being the only Israeli politician to face legal troubles. Ehud Olmert, Mr Netanyahu's predecessor as prime minister, is standing trial on corruption charges that forced him to quit the premiership in 2008.

Mr Netanyahu himself faces graft allegations. Earlier this month, a television station reported that private businessmen paid for lavish trips for him and his family during the period that he served as cabinet minister and legislator. The report prompted an investigation by Israel's comptroller, and Mr Netanyahu, who denies wrongdoing, this week said he is suing the television channel.

Critics of the country's political system have said that the allegations involving Mr Lieberman, Mr Olmert and Mr Netanyahu reflect an unholy alliance between politics and business in Israel that has only worsened in recent years. Some commentators say that Mr Lieberman's alleged acts of corruption may also be explained by his upbringing in the former Soviet Union and his close ties with politicians in Russia - notorious for the intimate connection between government and business.