"According to the legal opinion submitted to me, I do not have to resign, but in the end I will make a decision after consulting with my attorneys," Avigdor Lieberman said Thursday, just hours after Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein announced his decision to close the main corruption cause against the foreign minister but indict him for breach of public trust and fraud in a 2008 cause involving obstruction of justice by former Israeli ambassador to Belarus Ze’ev Ben-Aryeh.
Speaking at an event of young Yisrael Beiteinu members in Tel Aviv, Lieberman called on the state to lift his parliamentary immunity at once so he could be put on trial "as soon as possible."
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"We are in the middle of an election campaign, and I think (the indictment) hurts the voting public. Last elections we (Yisrael Beiteinu) ran alone and got 400,000 votes. We are 40 days before the elections. We must win these elections in a more convincing manner. Therefore, my decision (on whether to resign) will be reached after I receive the (legal) opinion of my attorneys and after (considering its effects) on the voting public."
Investigations into Lieberman, 54, were first opened in 2001 and spanned nine countries. The more serious allegations included money-laundering and bribery, but the Attorney-General said there was no chance of a conviction on those.
The indictment focuses on Lieberman's efforts to promote Ben-Aryeh, who had leaked him privileged information about a police probe pertaining to Lieberman.
Addressing the indictment, Lieberman said "In 2008 I was in the opposition and traveled as the head of a delegation (of Knesset members) for the unveiling of a memorial at the Minsk ghetto, along with a group of World War Two veterans. During the event the ambassador (Ben-Aryeh) asked to see me. I innocently thought (he wanted to discuss) a diplomatic issue. He came to the hotel room and handed me an envelope. I opened it. At first I didn't understand what it was about, but then I understood and said, 'Stop this nonsense.' I read the content, threw it in the toilet and flushed."
Lieberman at the event of young Yisrael Beiteinu members, Thursday (Photo: Moti Kimchi)
The FM defended Ben-Aryeh, saying "people do foolish things in moments of weakness, but you don’t determine people's fates based on this. He is a man of many talents. Even if a man errs once, sometimes it is wise not to charge at him with an axe and chop his head off."
Lieberman said he did not intervene in the Foreign Ministry committee's decision to appoint Ben-Aryeh as ambassador to Riga. "It was the second time he was supposed to represent Israel as an ambassador. I don't know what promotion they are talking about."
Addressing the corruption case against him, which was closed, Lieberman said he had never heard of the shell companies mentioned in the affair.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the decision not to press more serious charges and said in a statement that he hoped Lieberman would "also prove his innocence in the single remaining issue."
A draft of the indictment passed on to parliament said Lieberman had acted in "a serious conflict of interest between his duties to the public as foreign minister ... and his personal feeling of commitment to (the diplomat) who had acted on his behalf in passing him secret information."
Shuki Lamberger, a senior state prosecutor, said it could take up to a month for the indictment to be officially served because Lieberman is protected by parliamentary immunity.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert resigned in 2008 after being indicted for corruption, though he has since been acquitted of most of those charges.
An outspoken foreign minister and a powerful partner in Netanyahu's governing coalition, Lieberman is known for his nationalistic rhetoric, making it a key component of his election campaigning.
This week Lieberman angered the European Union by saying it did not sufficiently condemn calls from the Islamist group Hamas for Israel's destruction and likened this to Europe's failure to stop the Nazi genocide against Jews during World War Two.
The European Union foreign policy chief called the comments offensive and reiterated the bloc's commitment to Israel's security.
Born in Moldova, Lieberman, 54, immigrated to Israel in 1978. He became administrative head of the Likud party in 1993 and ran the prime minister's office from 1996 to 1997 during Netanyahu's first term.
Frustrated with coalition politics, he left and formed his own party Yisrael Beiteinu (Our Home Is Israel) in 1999.
Reuters contributed to the report
Yuval Karni is a Ynet and Yedioth Ahronoth correspondent