Smiling in the Face of Indictment, Lieberman Steps Down as Israel’s Foreign Minister

if the Ehud Olmert case is any precedent, Avigdor Lieberman has good reason to be optimistic about his legal problems.

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Baz Ratner / Reuters

Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Avigdor Lieberman steps down as Israel’s foreign minister today, five days after being indicted on charges of fraud and breach of trust.  The fiery populist spoke as if he was going down the hall, calling the retreat from office “temporary” and adding, “I assume the break will be very short.”  It may well be.  He is still standing for election to the Knesset on Jan. 22, his name below only that of Benjamin Netanyahu on the joint ballot shared by the Likud party and Yisrael Beiteinu, the ultranationalist party Lieberman founded and rules by fiat. (He retained his Knesset seat but cannot serve in the cabinet while under indictment.)

The defendant’s sangfroid, which analysts and pollsters call justified, says a great deal both about the state of Israeli governance and about Lieberman’s place in it. Two of the more prominent politicians on the January ballot carry criminal records from previous terms in office : Tzachi Hanegbi, a onetime justice minister convicted of perjury in 2010, is running with Likud, while Aryeh Deri, the charismatic leader of the Shas party who did two years for bribery, campaigns under the slogan, “He’s back.”  Both are essentially guaranteed seats in the next Knesset.  But then, surveys indicate Israelis expect very little from their politicians. The 2012 Israel Democracy Index found that, of all public institutions, political parties rank dead last for trust.  Only one in three Israelis report even “some extent” of faith in them.

“This is something that has been indicated since early 2000, or even back to the 90s, where the whole idea that ‘We’re fed up with you corrupt politicians’ was one of the main motivations for the 1990 campaign for a constitution,” Tamar Hermann, the pollster who compiled the index, tells TIME.  Israel still lacks a constitution, but a watershed public corruption trial loomed in the mid-2000s, when it appeared a prime minister might face indictment while in office: Ariel Sharon was under intense scrutiny for money allegedly flowing into his family from a magnate trying to build on Greek islands.  Sharon was not indicted, but his successor was – Ehud Olmert stepped down as prime minister in 2009 and was indicted for a passel of corruption charges.

What happened next would frame the Lieberman case, at least in terms of public perception:  After years of headlines implying he was guilty, Olmert was acquitted on the most serious charges by a panel of judges. After being hounded from office by prosecutors,  the former premier ended up at least resembling a victim, while pundits trained their outrage on the state attorney’s office for its conduct in the trial —  which itself lasted two years.

Lieberman faces a similar situation:  The first investigative file on him was opened in 1996, when he was a top aide to Netanyahu in his first term as prime minister.  That probe was leaked to the media, as were details of an array of investigations aimed his way over the years, the most serious allegedly involving businessmen transferring millions of dollars into offshore companies reportedly controlled by his daughter.

But in the end, attorney general Yehuda Weinstein announced on Thursday  that the most serious charges would not be filed after all.  The indictment would be brought for Lieberman’s efforts to track the investigations – specifically, for attempting to promote as ambassador to Belarus a former diplomat convicted of tipping him off to details of a police probe.  Relatively speaking, this was small potatoes, and allowed Lieberman to emerge looking both fairly clean and more persecuted than prosecuted. “This cloud has been over him for, what, 16 years,” says Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at Hebrew University.  “The image is not a politician that has gone wrong and is being punished, but a politician who’s been picked on by the legal system.”

Political analysts speculate over what went into the decision to abandon the more serious charges. During the years the investigation dragged on, much of it in the newspapers, some witnesses changed their stories; others refused to travel to Israel to testify.  But, says Hermann, “basically both left and right are in harmony that the attorney general was too slow.”

Lieberman wants things to speed up.  His plan, he says, is to close the case altogether – either by a swift trial or a plea bargain – before a new government is formed.  And every poll shows that Netanyahu will once again be the one forming that government.  But Lieberman –his presumptive successor as premier — still faces legal risks.  If a judge decides Lieberman’s conduct was deliberate rather than incidental – if it involves what the Israeli legal system calls “moral turpitude”– the Moldova native would be barred from holding any office.  Few, however, see things going that way, especially in wake of the Olmert case.

“The bottom line is that I don’t think it’s going to change much of anything,” Hazan tells TIME. “I don’t think that his voters are so appalled by the fact that he just might have had a conflict of interest and they’re going to abandon him.  That’s not the nature of his voting bloc.” The bloc is Russian immigrants (a sizable chunk of the Israeli electorate) 70% of whom still favored Lieberman after the indictment was announced, according to a poll  by a Russian-language website.  The figure was up a couple of points from two weeks earlier.

“Think of this as a weird combination of a Vladimir Putin and a Silvio Berlusconi,” says Hazan.  “You have a very serious charismatic figure with a strongman image on the one hand, and who has constantly had run-ins with the legal system and uses it for political advantage.”