One day after sounding a defiant note, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Friday that he would resign following his indictment on fraud and breach of trust for allegedly promoting a diplomat who provided him with sensitive information about the police investigation against him.
Thursday’s indictment of the foreign minister, announced by Israeli Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein, had ended a 12-year investigation.
“I have committed no offense but I wish to put behind me this issue, which is what remains of many years of investigation,” Lieberman said in a statement Friday, according to reports.
Speaking at a campaign event on Thursday, Lieberman had said he would not resign as foreign minister or leave the Knesset unless Weinstein would issue a binding directive ordering him to depart, Israel Hayom reported. Lieberman explained that day that Weinstein himself had not yet offered a clear legal opinion on whether the allegations in the indictment related to what is considered “severe crimes” (which would require him to resign as per a High Court precedent). The foreign minister also cited an ongoing elections campaign—in which his Yisrael Beytenu party had joined forces with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud—as a reason for not resigning.
But on Friday, Lieberman reversed field, saying he is stepping down “because I believe the citizens of Israel deserve to go to the ballot box with this thing already settled, so I can resume serving the state of Israel and its citizens.”
The attorney-general’s draft indictment of Lieberman, issued in April of last year, was much more damning than Thursday’s final announcement, involving allegations of money laundering through shell companies, harassment of a witness and more severe charges of fraud and breach of trust.
Weinstein decided to forego prosecution on most charges due to a lack of sufficient evidence. The watered-down indictment is limited to Lieberman’s alleged actions in 2009, when he allegedly had the government promote then ambassador to Belarus, Ze’ev Ben-Aryeh, and have him appointed as Israel’s chief diplomat in Latvia. Lieberman is faulted for not disclosing that the latter had provided the minister with unauthorized information on the police investigation into his corruption case, including on the Israel Police's correspondence with the local authorities in the Belarusian capital Minsk (Ben-Aryeh was privy to those documents in his capacity as the de-facto local liaison for Israel's law enforcement agencies).
Ben-Aryeh was convicted several months ago of obstruction of justice and breach of trust in the case. The prosecution successfully argued that he had compromised the investigation against Lieberman by sharing privileged information on the persons of interest and bank accounts Israeli authorities wanted to scrutinize in Belarus.
“Since making Aliyah to Israel in 1978, I’ve had two unpaid parking tickets,” Lieberman said Thursday. “But I have been under investigation since 1996, when I was appointed director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office; I have been perpetually investigated; not a single day has gone by without the police naming me as a person of interest or subjecting me to intelligence gathering.”
Members of Israel’s opposition parties had called for Lieberman to step down.
“If he won’t quit then I call on [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu to fire him immediately,” Labor Chairwoman MK Shelly Yachimovich said before Lieberman’s announcement Friday. “If that does not happen, then Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein needs to make the prime minister do it… Lieberman cannot be allowed to stay in office for another minute.”
Meretz Chairwoman Zahava Gal-On had said in a petition, “The general public will find it hard to accept someone as fair, trustworthy, honest and candid once he or she has been accused of such crimes [as Lieberman’s]. Therefore it is imperative to see his service in any public capacity terminated.”