News Analysis: Indictment of Israeli FM to have limited political ramifications

2012-12-13 20:40:00 GMT2012-12-14 04:40:00(Beijing Time)  Xinhua English

Adam Gonn

JERUSALEM, Dec. 13 (Xinhua) -- Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein on Thursday announced that he would charge Foreign Minister and Yisrael Beiteinu party leader Avigdor Lieberman on accounts of fraud and breach of trust. However, Weinstein dropped the more severe charges of money laundering and obstruction of justice.

The decision by Weinstein marks the end of the 12 year process during which Lieberman has been under investigation for allegedly pocketing millions of U.S. dollars from foreign businessmen via shell companies.

In addition, Lieberman was suspected to have received classified information from the Justice Ministry on the investigation against him from former Israeli ambassador to Belarus Ze'ev Ben Aryeh.

"It's a very sad day because a prominent figure seems to be able to get away with serious misconduct in financial affairs," Professor Eyal Chowers, of Tel Aviv University, told Xinhua on Thursday.

"On the other hand it's also sad that there is a process which takes more than 12 years and it's unreasonable to put any individual under investigation for 12 years. So from any direction that you look it's a sad day for the rule of law in Israel," Chowers added.

Election effects

Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party is the second largest in the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government. And ahead of the January 22 elections to the Knesset parliament Yisrael Beiteinu and Netanyahu's Likud party announced that they would present a joint list of candidates of parliamentarians.

Opinion polls conducted prior to Thursday's announcement indicated that with a merged list the two parties would receive 39 mandates compared to the 42 that the hold in the current Knesset.

Professor Gideon Rahat, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who spoke to Xinhua prior Weinstein made the announcement, said that if indictment would just include the lesser offences then the public's support for Lieberman would remain the same.

"On the one hand some people don't like the idea that he will be blamed for these misdoings, on the other hand especially people on the right-wing will understand it as a way for the left-wing or whomever to get rid of him," Rahat said. "So he might even get some credit," he added.

The decision to indict doesn't mean the case will go to trial immediately, and a hearing will be the next step and according to reports in Israeli media the parties might settle for a plea bargain.

Chowers argued that an indictment wouldn't nesscary mean the end of Liberman's political career and pointed to the case of Aryeh Deri of the Shas party, who in 2000 was convicted of taking bribes while serving as Interior Minister, a crime for which he spent 22 months in prison for.

However, in 2011 Deri announced that he was planning to return to politics and he now number two on Shas list for the elections in January, after Shas decided to take him back rather than letting him establish his own party.

"So in Israel it's hard to know, if the things which aren't related to sexual harassment or things like that which Israelis tends to take very seriously, like with former president Moshe Katzav or former defense minister Yitzhak Mordehai," Chowers said.

"In this case where money is involved it seems to be something more ambiguous, I'm not sure that Lieberman's career is over," he added.

Calls to step down

While some political opponents of Lieberman, such as Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich, has called for him to step down, there is no law requiring him to do so. Nevertheless, Israeli courts have in the past ruled that if a minister is indicted for a serious offence then the minister must step down or be fired by the prime minister.

However, what constitutes a serious offense hasn't been decided. And it seems unlike that Netanyahu would fire the number two on the joint Likud-Yisrael Beitenu list just weeks prior to the elections as none of the other members of Yisrael Beiteinu are as well known as Lieberman.

The spotlight on Lieberman as the focal point of the party increased after he recently dismissed a number of well-known party members such as deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon and tourism minister Stas Misezhnikov.

For example when former prime minister Ehud Olmert decided to step down in 2009 he did so after he was under investigation, and eventually, for the type of crimes which Lieberman won't be indicted for.

While it might seem strange for someone looking at Israeli politics from abroad that a minister who is suspected of indicting of crime is allowed to remain in office, Rahat argued that the explanation is quite simple.

"If everyone that was blamed from something would be forced to leave politics, then, it would become a political weapon," Rahat said.

Rahat said that on local level in Israel there have been a number of cases where rival politicians have accused each other of carious wrong doings that eventually turned out to be untrue.

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