Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Liberman announced his resignation from the government on Friday, 24 hours after Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein said he would indict the Yisrael Beytenu chairman on breach of trust and fraud charges.
Liberman said he and his lawyers believe he was not legally required to resign, but that he wanted to put his legal troubles behind him quickly, ideally before the January 22 elections. Liberman maintains he is innocent of all charges.
His responsibilities as foreign minister will apparently be handled for now by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who on Friday said he hoped Liberman would quickly clear his name and would return to take a senior ministerial position in the next government.
“Though I know I did nothing wrong, after 16 years of legal proceedings, investigations, and wiretaps, I have decided to resign from my position as foreign minister and deputy prime minister so I can clear my name without delay,” said Liberman in a statement.
“I believe the citizens of Israel have the right to go to the ballots after this whole issue is put to rest, meaning after the matter is settled in court, and I can continue to serve the public and the state as part of a strong and united leadership that will meet the security, economic and diplomatic challenges facing the country,” he added.
The statement suggests that Liberman plans to participate in the January 22 elections; he is the second name on the joint Likud-Beytenu Knesset slate and would be allowed to take his seat as a Knesset member but not to serve as a minister.
Netanyahu spoke to Liberman Friday and wished him luck in proving his innocence. If convicted, Liberman could be prohibited from holding a ministerial post for several years, depending on whether the offense is deemed to constitute moral turpitude.
Yisrael Beitenu and Netanyahu’s Likud Party recently joined forces and are running together on a joint list in the elections. Opinion polls have predicted the list would be by far the largest bloc in parliament and lead a new coalition government. Netanyahu is heavily favored to win the premiership.
Israel Radio legal affairs analyst Moshe Negbi said Liberman’s announcement indicated he planned to try to settle the case in a plea bargain.
“Liberman’s resignation was very important because it strengthens the norms of our court system, where if an official is suspected of corruption they step down even though legally they don’t have to, in order to preserve the public’s faith in the government,” said Negbi.
Previous court rulings in other, apparently more serious criminal cases against cabinet ministers have forced them to resign. Facing the prospect of an indictment, prime minister Ehud Olmert announced his decision to step down in 2008 before formal corruption charges were filed against him. Olmert this year was cleared of most charges, but convicted of breach of trust.
On Thursday, Liberman announced that he would not step down immediately, and that he would consult with his lawyers and consider the impact of his position on the upcoming elections before making a final decision.
“I said I would resign if I was indicted in the major case against me,” Liberman said, referring to substantive allegations of obstruction of justice and money laundering, which were dropped for lack of evidence by the attorney general on Thursday. “But this is something else.”
Weinstein indicated Thursday that he was not confident the state prosecution would be able to secure a conviction of Liberman on the more serious accusations that he established several shell companies that laundered millions of dollars, much of which made its way into his pockets. According to that case, between 1999 and 2006, while he held public office, millions of shekels were allegedly transferred to him and his daughter by people in Israel and abroad. A key witness for the prosecution, the state said, was now no longer able to remember crucial evidence.
Others in the state prosecution, including State Attorney Moshe Lador, believed charges should have been brought over the major allegations, but the attorney general decided to close the case.
The foreign minister will be indicted instead on breach of trust and fraud charges for having received classified Justice Ministry documents that related to his investigation from the former ambassador to Belarus, Ze’ev Ben Aryeh. He then allegedly sought to reward Ben Aryeh for helping him by having Ben Aryeh appointed to a second ambassadorship — an appointment that did not ultimately go ahead.
Liberman said he had received a legal opinion asserting that the charges, to be filed against him within 30 days, were not so grave as to require him to resign. According to a 1993 Supreme Court decision, a person can no longer serve as minister as soon as he or she has been indicted. Once legal proceedings have been initiated, the prime minister is obligated to fire a minister. This is what happened to former interior minister Aryeh Deri, who was imprisoned in 2000 for accepting bribes. But some analysts contend that the two cases are not necessarily comparable.
Earlier Friday, left-wing Meretz party leader Zahava Gal-on petitioned the High Court of Justice, asking for an order compelling the prime minister to fire Liberman.
The petition charged that Liberman’s alleged offenses “violate the basic elements of integrity in public service, causing serious damage to the public’s confidence in its elected officials and harming democracy.”
Meretz later welcomed Liberman’s resignation, which rendered the court petition unnecessary.
Labor Party chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich expressed satisfaction with Liberman’s decision to resign, stating it should have been a “matter of course.”
“Liberman delivered a grave blow to the rule of law and harmed the public’s trust in its elected officials and in democracy,” said Yachimovich in a statement.
Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party issued a statement commending Liberman for “doing the right, and necessary, thing.”
The statement added that Hatnua leaders hope Liberman’s case receives rapid treatment.