Politics: Facing indictment, but no lame duck

After 15 years of investigations, Lieberman's associates are confident that if he plays his cards right, he can win even more support.

By GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN
April 15, 2011 16:14
4 minute read.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman

Avigdor Lieberman looks sad, crying? 311 (R). (photo credit: Reuters)

 
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Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman heard the news about Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein’s decision to indict him on corruption charges pending a hearing from his lawyer immediately before the Israel Beiteinu leader was set to speak at his party’s convention at the Jerusalem International Convention Center Wednesday night.

The news was no surprise for Lieberman, who had been tipped off that the indictment would be announced during the convention. Reporters at the event had already broadcast that the indictment would be issued, an hour and a half before Lieberman was formally told. Yet Israel Beiteinu officials were still shocked that the timing – during a party convention that only takes place once every four years – was so blatantly transparent.

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Lieberman has seen the multiple investigations against him as political attempts to stifle his career that have only had the opposite effect thus far. Since the first investigation began, he has risen from a mere aide to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, to foreign minister and leader of the third-largest party, with polls indicating even more seats in the next election.

The irony of 15 years of investigations resulting in 15 MKs under Lieberman’s command has not been lost on those closest to him.

Lieberman’s associates are confident that if he plays his cards right, he can use the conditional indictment to win even more support.

THE IMMEDIATE political impact of Weinstein’s decision was zero. No one legally had to resign, and no one did. Israel Beiteinu is still firmly ensconced in Netanyahu’s coalition, and Lieberman reiterated in his speech to the convention that the party was not going anywhere.

It would not have made sense for Lieberman to decide his next political steps before being given the tens of thousands of documents that Weinstein’s office has been accumulating over the years, which will be submitted to Lieberman to review ahead of a hearing that is likely to take place in six months. Once Lieberman has all the information, he will know how strong the case against him is and decide his legal and political strategy accordingly.

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Should Lieberman decide that the case is winnable and that an indictment can be averted with a strong defense at the hearing, he knows it is in his interest to stay in the government until the moment Weinstein rules in his favor. Lieberman could then initiate an election on a diplomatic or civil issue and enter it with no legal cloud hanging over his head.

But should Lieberman see that the evidence is strong, he will have only a narrow window of opportunity to find an excuse to initiate an election between the hearing and a final decision by Weinstein to indict him. If an election period begins, Weinstein will not be able to issue the indictment until after the race, in which Lieberman can attack the unpopular legal establishment to boost his power as his friend Arye Deri did at the helm of Shas in 1999. He would then be able to play a dominant role behind the scenes for years to come from outside the cabinet while he fights to prove his innocence in court.

In either scenario, Lieberman would not have to implement his promise to resign from the Foreign Ministry and the chairmanship of Israel Beiteinu following the hearing, and anyone hoping to succeed him in either job even for a few months would be disappointed.

THE REALIZATION that Lieberman is powerful and will remain powerful for years to come resulted in deafening silence from across the political spectrum following Weinstein’s announcement Wednesday night.

Netanyahu issued a statement wishing Lieberman success in proving his innocence. Opposition leader Tzipi Livni responded to Weinstein’s decision in a speech to Kadima activists in Or Yehuda by criticizing not Lieberman, but legal authorities for working too slowly. Before Livni, some 20 Kadima MKs spoke at the event, and not one mentioned Lieberman or even hinted at the news party activists were talking about among themselves.

People who returned from the event described Lieberman as “an elephant that was not in the room but whose presence was clearly felt.”

There are many reasons Kadima was so silent.

Livni owes her political career to Lieberman, who appointed her to her first job as head of the Government Companies Authority in the Prime Minister’s Office. Should Livni be given an opportunity to form the next government, she will need Israel Beiteinu, especially if she does not repair her strained ties with the religious parties by then.

But the main reason for the silence at the Kadima event was that the party has had its share of central figures who have had problems with the law, including former prime minister Ehud Olmert, Kadima council chairman Haim Ramon, former ministers Tzachi Hanegbi and Avraham Hirchson, and party founder Ariel Sharon’s sons Omri and Gilad.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who refused to remain in the last government unless Olmert resigned, issued no statement yesterday about Lieberman.

Political reporters’ SMSes, which chirp away with responses from MKs across the political spectrum whenever any big news happens, showed only one critical statement – from United Arab List MK Taleb a-Sanaa.

Even Government Services Minister Michael Eitan (Likud), who criticized his own party’s prime minister over the Netanyahu travel scandal, has nothing to say about Lieberman.

“We don’t see any dramatic change that has happened due to Weinstein’s announcement or really any shock waves at all,” a source close to Netanyahu said. “Lieberman’s legal situation remains up in the air like it has always been.”

Or as an Israel Beiteinu official put it: Lieberman and his pending indictment may be the proverbial elephant in the room in Israeli politics, but the foreign minister is anything but a lame duck.

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