Israel’s foreign minister charged
Avigdor Lieberman ignores calls to step down after breach of trust allegations.
JERUSALEM — Israel’s powerful foreign minister was charged Thursday with breach of trust for actions that allegedly compromised a criminal investigation into his business dealings, throwing the country’s election campaign into disarray just weeks before the vote.
Although Avigdor Lieberman was cleared of more serious allegations against him, the indictment sparked immediate calls for the controversial politician to step down. He declined to do so at a news conference but said he would consult with his lawyers on what to do next. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also rallied behind his close ally.
Lieberman denied any wrongdoing, calling the investigation against him a witch hunt.
“According to my legal counsel, I do not have to resign,” Lieberman told cheering supporters at a campaign rally. “At the end of the day, I will make a final decision together with my lawyers.”
Lieberman, a native of Moldova, is head of Yisrael Beitenu, an ultra- nationalist party that is especially popular with fellow immigrants from the former Soviet Union. With a tough-talking message that has questioned the loyalty of Israel’s Arab minority, criticized the Palestinians and confronted Israel’s foreign critics, he has become an influential voice in Israeli politics.
Yisrael Beitenu and Netanyahu’s Likud Party recently joined forces and are running together on a joint list in the Jan. 22 parliamentary elections. Opinion polls have predicted they would form the largest bloc in parliament and lead a new coalition government.
But Thursday’s decision threatened to become a distraction during the campaign. Three leading opposition politicians all called for his dismissal. Lieberman’s departure could have negative consequences for Netanyahu. He is Yisrael Beitenu’s founder and main attraction to voters.
Lieberman gave no timeframe for deciding on his political future but said he would consider whether the indictment was harming support for his party in the election.
Perhaps with this in mind, Netanyahu seemed to come to Lieberman’s defense. In a statement, Netanyahu congratulated Lieberman for fending off the “main accusations” and said he was entitled to his day in court.
“I believe in the Israeli justice system, and I respect it. The right it gives every citizen in Israel to defend himself is extended to Minister Lieberman and I hope he proves his innocence in the one issue remaining,” Netanyahu said.