By some measures the most powerful politician in Israel is Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister who on Wednesday was informed he faces indictment for money laundering. Benjamin Netanyahu may be prime minister, but Lieberman holds the power to collapse his coalition government and force new elections. All he has to do is withdraw the support of his Yisrael Beiteinu party and the 15 seats it holds in the Knesset. That, or actually be indicted, which under Israeli law would force Lieberman out of office — bringing down the government.
What Lieberman got Wednesday was the rough equivalent of a “target letter,” the notice that a U.S. prosecutor gives to the subject of a grand jury investigation. There’s no grand jury involved in Lieberman’s case, only attorney general Yehuda Weinstein, but Lieberman’s attorneys now get a chance to talk him out of indicting. Because the case is so complex, involving paper trails and international money transfers spanning years, this so-called hearing phase could take six months. “We will present our claims, and the case will be closed,” the attorney, Yaron Kostelitz, told a radio station Thursday. “The story is baseless.”
It has also been much and long discussed by the Israeli press and chattering classes. Lieberman has lived for years under the cloud of rumors of corruption involving payments from overseas benefactors. The reports usually involved Lieberman’s daughter, Michal, who was also served notice that an indictment was pending. Such is the state of Israel’s political culture that Thursday’s papers had pundits predicting that his political career could survive convictions for money laundering, fraud, breach of trust and witness tampering. A snap poll for the daily Haaretz found the public evenly split on whether the notice of indictment was politically motivated or fair.
Lieberman himself appeared in excellent spirits. “I presume that you have heard the announcement issued by the State Attorney’s Office,” he said at the close of his remarks to the right-wing party he created and utterly dominates. “I have always acted according to law, and I have no cause for concern. After 15 years, I will finally be given an opportunity to prove that I acted according to law, and you know—my word is my bond.”
Netanyahu made clear he wants him around. “I’ve worked with him for many years,” the prime minister said in a statement. “He is a key member of the cabinet and I hope he will continue making his contribution to the public.”