The state prosecution announced on Thursday that it would indict Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman on breach of trust and fraud charges, but that a lack of evidence meant he would not be prosecuted over more major allegations of obstruction of justice and money laundering.
Liberman said he did not have to resign, but would consult with his lawyers on whether or not he needs to step down.
The foreign minister said three years ago that he would quit if he was charged over the major allegations, which involved overseas shell companies.
Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein announced Thursday that he was not confident the state prosecution would be able to secure a conviction of Liberman over accusations that he established several shell companies that laundered millions of dollars, much of which made its way into his pockets. According to the 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, Weinstein indicated, believed charges should have been brought over the major allegations, but Weinstein decided to close the case.
The foreign minister was instead indicted on breach of trust and fraud charges for receiving classified Justice Ministry documents 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’s lawyers said earlier they believed the foreign minister could stay in office, citing a Supreme Court legal precedent which indicated that a senior minister facing charges of this relatively minor degree was not obligated to step down.
They added that they respected Weinstein’s decision and that they were currently evaluating it.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated
“I believe in Israel’s legal system and respect it,” Netanyahu said. “The right that it grants any Israeli citizen to defend himself also extends to Minister Liberman, and I hope for him that he’ll be able to prove that he’s also innocent regarding the only case that remains.”
Liberman and Netanyahu recently forged a political alliance for the upcoming elections, merging their parties’ lists.
The legal situation guiding whether Liberman can remain in office is unclear. 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.
According to some legal experts, this case serves as legal precedent that should force Netanyahu to fire Liberman. Other analysts contend that the two cases are not necessarily comparable and that it is unclear whether the prime minister is obligated to send Liberman home.
Despite his decision not to press charges on the major allegations, Weinstein lashed out against the foreign minister saying “close scrutiny of the evidence” could not completely dispel suspicions of wrongdoing, and that Liberman cloaked 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.”
Liberman repeatedly claimed that he knew absolutely nothing about the shell companies he was accused to have been affiliated with, but Weinstein responded on Wednesday that “evidence exists that does not reconcile with that explanation.”
The decisions Thursday came after years of investigations and speculations over the fate of Yisrael Beytenu’s chairman, and will resolve a major issue that has been overshadowing Israel’s political scene ahead of the January 22 elections.
Weinstein had announced that he planned to indict Liberman on the shell company allegations, subject to a hearing, more than a year ago, and has since then held several hearings with his lawyers. In the beginning of November, the state told the High Court it would reach a final decision within a month.
That notification came in response to a court petition by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel demanding that the Attorney General and the State Attorney’s Office decide whether they will press charges before or after the elections.
In recent weeks, reports leaked that the prosecution planned to drop the main charges and settle for an indictment on the breach of trust case alone.
According to a Channel 2 report on Wednesday night, the prosecution decided to drop the more substantial part of the case after a key witness intimated that she would withdraw her testimony and take the stand in favor of Liberman. Other potential witnesses have either died since the launch of the investigation or have refused to testify.
Police began investigating Liberman in 2006 and in 2008 recommended an indictment following a review of evidence that dated back more than a decade.
Two weeks ago, State Attorney Moshe Lador addressed the delay in Liberman’s case, saying “in corruption cases it is often difficult to obtain evidence and gather witnesses.” He said in retrospect that it was unacceptable for proceedings to have taken so long.
Liberman denies all the allegations against him, claiming they constitute a political witch hunt, and points to the extended period of the investigation as proof that there is no real evidence against him.