Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein on Thursday announced his decision to charge Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman with fraud and breach of trust for working to promote former Israeli ambassador to Belarus Ze'ev Ben Aryeh without disclosing the fact that Ben Aryeh had illegally leaked information about an investigation against him. However, the attorney general said a more serious corruption case against Lieberman has been closed.
The announcement comes just weeks before a Jan. 22 election in which Likud-Beiteinu, the right-wing party of Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is predicted to win.
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While the FM escaped the most serious accusations against him, Thursday's decision could still jeopardize his political career and throw the Israeli political system into upheaval on the eve of elections.
The investigation into Lieberman's personal business dealings goes back more than a decade. Prosecutors have long suspected that he 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.
Ambassador Ben Aryeh (Photo: Atta Awisat)
In his decision Thursday, Weinstein said the case was not strong enough.
"I am convinced that there is no reasonable chance of a conviction in the offenses Lieberman is suspected of and that case should be closed," the attorney general said in his decision.
Instead, Lieberman was charged with the lesser offense of receiving official material from the investigation against him from the former Israeli ambassador to Belarus.
The envoy had received the documents from the foreign ministry, which sought additional information on Lieberman from Belarus authorities. The ambassador, Zeev Ben-Aryeh, reached a plea bargain in the case earlier this year.
Despite his decision not to press charges in the corruption case, Attorney General Weinstein said "close scrutiny of the evidence" could not completely dispel suspicions of wrongdoing, adding that Lieberman concealed his actions with "a complex web of interrelated schemes… in order to allow him to continue in business and enjoy the fruits thereof during his public ministry."
Lieberman has denied all wrongdoing and said in the past he would resign if indicted, though it was unclear how he would now act since the charges he face are less severe than anticipated. Legal experts say the FM may resign, following the precedent of other Israeli officials indicted for corruption in recent years, including former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who was acquitted of most of those charges this year.
Ben Aryeh, who served as the ambassador to Belarus between 2004-2009, was convicted in May 2012 under a plea bargain of obstructing justice and passing information to an unauthorized person.
During a hearing at the Jerusalem District Court, he was handed a four-month sentence, which the judge converted to community service.
In October 2008, Ben Aryeh tipped off Lieberman, who was visiting Minsk as an MK, that Israeli police had contacted their counterparts in Belarus for help with a probe into crimes allegedly committed by the foreign minister.
During the visit, the ambassador briefed Lieberman on the issue and handed him a confidential document relating to the investigation, the court found.
The prosecution plans to argue that Lieberman had breached the public's trust by assisting Ben Aryeh in his efforts to be appointed ambassador to Latvia. The committee that discussed the appointment was headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, Lieberman's right-hand man.
The appointment was later approved by a different committee and by the government. Lieberman did not reveal his personal relationship with Ben Aryeh throughout the entire process.
Legal sources have estimated that this case will also end in a plea bargain.
Israeli law is unclear about whether Lieberman must resign. There is a legal precedent for politicians to step down when they face charges that compromise public trust in them. But Lieberman could decide the charges don't warrant that he resign.
Law professor Emanuel Gross said that because Weinstein did not make a recommendation as to whether Lieberman should step down, the foreign minister's political future remained unclear. He said Weinstein might be asked for a ruling, and if he refuses, the matter could head to the Supreme Court.
Israel Radio's chief political commentator, Hanan Kristal, said Lieberman would likely resign before the attorney general is forced to take action, perhaps by ordering Netanyahu to fire his foreign minister. "I assume (Weinstein) doesn't want to get to that," he said.
Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu and Netanyahu's Likud Party recently joined forces and are running together on a joint list in the Jan. 22 parliamentary elections. Opinion polls have predicted the list would be by far the largest bloc in parliament and lead a new coalition government.
AP, Reuters contributed to the report
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