Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman announced Thursday evening that he would not stepping down immediately, despite facing charges of breach of trust and fraud, but would consult with his lawyers and consider the impact of his position on the imminent elections before taking 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.”
He said his lawyers had advised him that he did not need to step down over the fraud and breach of trust indictment, which the state announced Thursday it would file against him in the next 30 days. But he added that his legal team was still familiarizing itself with the prosecution’s case.
Liberman’s lawyers said earlier they believed the foreign minister could stay in office despite the indictment, 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.
Ultimately, Liberman said, he would make a decision based both on legal advice and on his concern for how the matter might affect his Yisrael Beytenu party’s prospects in the January 22 elections.
“We’re in the course of an election campaign. There’s a public interest issue… We’ll take the correct decisions,” he promised.
Liberman, speaking at an event for party activists that had been scheduled before the news of the indictment broke, said he had asked the Knesset to lift his immunity from prosecution in order that the case could proceed rapidly. “Let the trial go ahead as soon as possible… If I have to pay a price, I’ll pay the price with love,” he said, but added that he had done nothing wrong.
Earlier in the day, left-leaning politicians called for the removal of Liberman, seen as a hard-liner, following the indictment announcement.
Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich said Liberman had to go, and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should fire him immediately. Meretz head Zehava Gal-on said she would seek to have him dismissed by order of the Supreme Court. Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party also urged him to resign as foreign minister and stay out of public life until the case was resolved.
Liberman described the three female party leaders as “three vaybers (Yiddish for “biddies”) who attack me relentlessly.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who forged a political alliance with Liberman and merged their parties lists for the upcoming elections, said earlier Thursday he was glad the major case had been closed, and hoped he would be cleared of the fraud and breach of trust charges.
Hours earlier, the state prosecution announced that it would indict Liberman on the 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 Thursday night he had been under investigation — a “rolling” probe, under one name or another — since July 1996, shortly after he became Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief of staff. Before then, since immigrating from Moldova in 1979, his only offenses had been “two parking tickets,” he said. For more than 16 years, “there hasn’t been a day” when he wasn’t under investigation.
The foreign minister was indicted on breach of trust and fraud charges for receiving classified Justice Ministry documents related to his investigation from former ambassador to Belarus Ze’ev Ben Aryeh, Weinstein announced. Liberman then allegedly sought to reward Ben Aryeh for helping him by having Ben Aryeh appointed to the second ambassadorship.
He defended his actions in the case, saying Ben Aryeh tried to give him information on the legal investigations against him, not because Liberman had asked him to do so but because Ben Aryeh chose to do so.
The ambassador handed Liberman an envelope in his hotel room, unrequested, while he was on an official visit to Minsk. When he saw what the envelope contained, he told Ben Aryeh to “stop this rubbish,” tore up the paper, “threw it into the toilet and flushed it away.”
He denied subsequently rewarding Ben Aryeh in any way, noting that the ambassador was “head and shoulders” above other candidates for a subsequent job as ambassador to Latvia — an appointment that did not ultimately go ahead — and that it would have been wrong to punish Ben Aryeh over the envelope incident by seeking to block such an appointment.
Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein had announced earlier 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.
“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.”