Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman will be charged with fraud… (Amel Emric / Associated…)
JERUSALEM — Israel's attorney general said Thursday that he would charge Avigdor Lieberman, the nation's combative foreign minister, with fraud and breach of trust but would drop a more serious money-laundering case that had been looming for years.
It remained unclear whether Lieberman, who is seeking reelection Jan. 22 as head of the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, would be forced to resign or whether the indictment would hurt his party's chances in upcoming national elections.
After Atty. Gen. Yehuda Weinstein's announcement, Lieberman denied wrongdoing and signaled that he did not believe he had to step down but said he would consult with his attorneys. He said he looked forward to a quick trial, noting that he has been under investigation of one sort of another since 1996.
Past government ministers accused of serious crimes have lost their posts, and Lieberman previously vowed to resign if indicted. But his supporters said resignation was not required now because the most serious charges, of money laundering and obstruction of justice, were dropped.
Weinstein will indict the foreign minister in connection with his promotion of former Israeli Ambassador to Belarus Zeev Ben Aryeh after the diplomat gave Lieberman confidential information regarding the government investigation of Lieberman.
Lieberman said Thursday that Aryeh handed him some unsolicited documents during a meeting in Belarus and when he realized what they were, he threw them into a toilet. Aryeh reached a separate plea bargain with prosecutors this year.
The attorney general's office said it did not have sufficient evidence to prosecute Lieberman on the more politically damaging allegations that he secretly received millions of dollars from business people who funneled money through foreign companies Lieberman controlled.
Nevertheless, Weinstein in his decision Thursday criticized Lieberman's behavior, saying the evidence suggested that he relied on a "complex web of interrelated schemes" and hid his activities while in public office.
Lieberman has consistently called the government investigation a political witch hunt by his enemies.
The attorney general's criticism and the impending indictment for breach of trust are likely to dog Lieberman in the national elections, where his party is running with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party as a right-wing bloc. The slate is widely expected to receive the highest number of votes, and Lieberman, who holds the No. 2 spot on the list, has reportedly been offered any Cabinet position he wants in a new Netanyahu-led coalition.
Lieberman, a Moldovan native who enjoys strong popularity among Russian immigrants, does not appear to have been politically damaged by the government investigation in the eyes of his supporters. In fact, he has been able to use it to his political advantage, portraying himself as a victim of left-wing factions.
In a statement Thursday night, Netanyahu expressed hope that Lieberman would clear himself of the remaining charges.
One possibility, analysts say, is that Lieberman will reach a plea bargain with prosecutors to avoid trial and plead guilty to lesser charges that would not legally bar him serving as a minister.
Labor Party Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich and most other center-left politicians called on Lieberman to step down immediately or for Netanyahu to fire him. The far-left Meretz party said it would ask the Supreme Court to remove him.
Government watchdog activists said even the lesser criminal charges are grounds for resignation.
"Lieberman is being indicted for violating the public trust," said Michael Partem, head of the anti-corruption group Movement for Quality Government. "It may be minor compared to the other charges, but it's a serious charge."
The long-anticipated announcement was also a setback for government prosecutors, Partem said. "The prosecutor's office looks weak after this because after a decade-plus-long investigation, they were not able to come up with the goods," he said. "It's a failure."
Prosecutors told Israeli media that their money-laundering case fell apart after a key government witness decided to testify on behalf of Lieberman instead.
Lieberman is one of Israel's most divisive and ambitious politicians, with aspirations to become prime minister. But his brash style and provocative statements have led critics to label him anti-Arab and anti-democratic. Around the world, some foreign diplomats shun Lieberman, preferring to deal with less-controversial Israeli representatives.
This week he compared recent European criticism of Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank to Europe's failure to protect Jews during the Holocaust. He also said Israeli soldiers would be justified in killing any Palestinian security officer who physically struck them. In the past, he advocated expelling Israeli Arabs to the West Bank.