The State Prosecutor's Office decided Wednesday to press formal charges against Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman for fraud, money laundering, breach of trust and witness tampering.
The indictment is pending a formal judicial hearing. The foreign minister is not expected to resign his office until a final decision in his case is reached.
Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein's decision in the matter followed a police recommendation to that effect, submitted some 18 months ago. One of the charges included in the original recommendation – bribery – was omitted from the indictment.
Lieberman was informed of the indictment during a Yisrael Beiteinu conference in Jerusalem.
The first State Comptroller report alleging that Yisrael Beiteinu breached campaign financing laws was published in 2000. The report alleged that the party obtained a $1 million line of credit in an Israeli bank, for which the guarantees were provided by an Austrian businessman, via a Vienna bank.
The prolonged investigation saw Lieberman lash out against the legal system on many occasions. "For some," he said in 2009, "I will always be 'Ivet the terrible.'"
In April of 2008, he was quoted as saying: "I've been a serial suspect and the police's darling since 1996. My interrogations were carried out while grossly infringing on the regulations. This is a witch-hunt, which also involved threatening those close to me… The Police have no reason not to conclude the investigation. Ten years is long enough."
He further slammed the police for persecuting him, saying that their actions coincided with the rise in Yisrael Beiteinu's political power.
Follow the money?
In February of 2001, the police launched an investigation into the matter. Lieberman was questioned several times, and four years later, in May 2005, the police submitted its findings to the State Prosecutor's Office for review.
The review was suspended in early 2006, when new evidence surfaced in the case, as a result of an overseas inquiry. Then-Attorney General Attorney General Menachem Mazuz ordered the case be reopened in April 2006. Mazuz later determined the given the investigation, Lieberman could not be named internal security minister.
April 2007 saw Yisrael Beiteinu's chairman questioned under caution by the National Fraud Unit. Lieberman was suspected of receiving illicit funds from Austrian businessman Martin Schlaff, through fictitious accounts held in Cypriot banks, and failing to duly report them.
The foreign minister later appealed the prosecution entering into evidence documents seized from his attorney's office. In March 2008, the Tel Aviv District Court denied the appeal, citing that "There is more than just a felonious hint to Lieberman's actions."
Some two weeks before the 2009 elections, Lieberman was questioned under caution for allegedly receiving bribes through his daughter's consultancy firm. Michal Lieberman and six other suspects were also questioned under suspicion of fraud, money laundering and breach of trust.
The next time Lieberman was question he had already been named foreign minister.
August 2009 saw the National Fraud Unit conclude its investigation and submit the State Prosecutor's Office with a recommendation to have the foreign minister indicted for bribery, fraudulently obtaining benefits by fraud, money laundering and breach of trust, as well as obstruction of justice and witness harassment.
The police believe Lieberman operated between six and 10 shell companies during his tenure in the National Infrastructure, Transportation and Strategies Affairs ministries, illicitly obtaining NIS 10 million ($2.9 million).
The plot thickens
March 2010 saw a twist in the case: Lieberman was questioned by police yet again, this time for allegedly receiving confidential information about his case from diplomat Zeev Ben-Arie, who at the time Israel's ambassador to Belarus.
According to police suspicions, Ben-Arie received a request from the Justice Ministry to discreetly relay a document pertaining to the Lieberman case to the Belarus authorities. The document in question was a request from the Minsk authorities to assist in the investigation. The ambassador is believed to have kept a copy of the document and gave it to Lieberman, when the latter was on an official visit to Belarus.
When the suspicions were made public, Lieberman slammed Police Commissioner Dudi Cohen for allegedly leaking the material to the press, calling the move "the mother of all obstructions of justice." He accused the police of "twisting the facts in order to pressure the State Prosecutor's Office and sway public opinion."
With the decision in his case nearing, Lieberman recently said that he will not use his diplomatic immunity should authorities seek to indict him.
"Once a decision is made I will review it. There will be a hearing and I'm sure everything will work out. And if it doesn’t – I wasn’t born the foreign minister and I will not seek refuge at the altar, or my chair."
Political seat still secure
The question that begs now is will Lieberman be forced to resign from the government.
The simple answer, as explained by Professor Ariel Bendor of Bar Ilan University, is no. according to Bendor, until a formal indictment is presented to the court, the law does not mandate the foreign minister's resignation.
"According to a High Court of Justice ruling, if the attorney general charges a minister with grave offenses, the minister must resign; and if he refuses to do so, the prime minister must fire him." Nevertheless, he qualified, "Such charges are pending a hearing."
Bendor added that it is highly likely that charges such as the alleged bribery and frauds in this case, will qualify as "grave offenses."
The hearing, according to the legalist, is an opportunity given to every person facing charges punishable by a three-year sentence or more, to convince the State Prosecutor's Office to drop or revise the charges.
In cases involving ministers, Knesset members or other public officials, a hearing is mandatory – unless the defendant has waived his right to one.
Even if indicted, Lieberman may not have to resign his parliamentary seat, or even abdicate his party's leadership: "MKs are not forced to resign unless the court imposes moral turpitude on their conviction, which is Lieberman's case is still a long way away," said Bendor.
Politically speaking, while Lieberman is unlikely to step down before a final decision in his case is made, there is gentlemen's agreement between him and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stating that regardless of an indictment Yisrael Beiteinu will not exit the coalition. The only question which still remains to be answered is who will take over as foreign minister should that moment come.
Tuesday's decision did not come as a complete surprise to the foreign minister and his associates. Lieberman's attorneys are likely to appeal to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein for a six-month period to prepare for the actual indictment.
Senior legalist told Ynet Lieberman is likely to use every possible legal tactic to delay his arraignment.
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