"There is a loss of all proportion here, an inebriation of the press. There is new meat to catch, a new object to beat up," Minister of Strategic Affairs Avigdor Lieberman, Chairman of Israel Beitenu party, told Army Radio on Wednesday morning in his first statements regarding Estherina Tartman's fabrication of academic education. He even jokingly added to the scandal: "I found out that Tartman did not work in a bank but in a newsstand."
Analysis: Lieberman's moment of truth
When asked whether he was planning to move forward with Tartman's appointment to the Tourism portfolio, Lieberman replied: "Have you heard anything different from me?"
Lieberman added that "Tartman is a young woman with her future ahead of her. If by tomorrow she is not tourism minister or we [Israel Beitenu] will not issue an official notice, the people of Israel will survive. One might say things she doesn't mean, slip up. We are not hiding, not hurrying, and I didn't return to Israel early because of this. Get in proportion. The soldiers are still captive, and a nuclear Iran is still our main problem," Lieberman said.
Lieberman had intended to discuss the Iranian threat when he addresses the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Wednesday morning, but instead he will have to focus on the threat to his closest political ally, MK Estherina Tartman.
Lieberman is expected to decide on Wednesday whether to fight for Tartman or to accede to the wishes of the majority of lawmakers, who said on Tuesday that they would vote against her appointment as tourism minister after she was caught lying on her resume.
People who spoke with Lieberman said he wanted to meet with Tartman and that he would not rush his decision.
"We have waited to take care of the Iranian threat and the kidnapped soldiers, whose fate is no less important than that of Estherina," Lieberman said.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's associates said they would not interfere with Lieberman's decision but they admitted that the government already had enough legal headaches before the controversy over Tartman erupted.
Tartman's supporters complained of a "witch-hunt" being conducted by her political enemies.
A woman who answered the phone at her home in Givon Hahadasha, said the MK would respond to the allegations at an appropriate time.
The media reported on Tuesday that Tartman lied when she wrote on her resume that she held a bachelor's degree in finance from Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan and a master's in business administration from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
A spokesman for Bar-Ilan said Tartman had never registered as a student there, but had completed continuing adult education courses affiliated with the school. Media reports said that what Tartman called an MBA from Hebrew University was really some courses she took at Touro College.
Following the reports, her resume was temporarily removed from both the Israel Beiteinu Web site and her Knesset profile page.
Questions were also raised on Tuesday about Tartman's claim that she was a deputy director-general at Bank Yahav and that she had parachuted from airplanes 41 times, more than any woman in IDF history.
The IDF declined to confirm the latter claim. A deputy director-general of Bank Yahav said the bank's spokeswoman had "finished work at 3 p.m."
MKs called for Tartman to withdraw her candidacy for tourism minister, which had been set to be voted on in the Knesset next Tuesday.
Legislators asked that she refrain from "disgracing herself" and the Knesset by continuing to contend for the position.
In 10 days, the Knesset Ethics Committee will meet to discuss the numerous allegations facing Tartman. If they decide there is clear evidence that she lied about her education, and that the lie has affected her work in the Knesset, they may recommend that Tartman be fined or otherwise sanctioned.
Under Knesset bylaws, only the High Court of Justice can impeach an MK.
Earlier on Tuesday, the Ethics Committee announced it had decided not to penalize Tartman for her comments last month that appointment of MK Ghaleb Majadele as the first Arab cabinet minister was an "affliction."
The most immediate step to be taken against Tartman, said MK Ran Cohen (Meretz), is that the Knesset will likely reject her appointment as Tourism Minister when the vote comes to the plenum.
"I do not believe that she will become tourism minister, considering the public pressure against her at this time," Cohen said.
Fellow Israel Beiteinu MK Yisrael Hasson said the reports about Tartman were "saddening," if true.
When Lieberman announced his decision to make Tartman tourism minister, he said he chose her for the post "due to her background in economics."
"Had we received a security portfolio, then Hasson [a former deputy chief of the Shin Bet] would have been given the job, and had we received the absorption portfolio, someone else would have gotten it. But for the financial portfolio, [Tartman] was the most suitable," Lieberman told a press conference Sunday.
Tartman had also said that her background and education in economics qualified her for the post. "In order to be a tourism minister, you must have an economic background, a management background... I'm coming from a clear economics background - a bachelor's [in] accounting and financial management, a master's [in] business management," Tartman said in an interview with the Knesset Channel earlier this week.
Tartman came to the Knesset on Tuesday, but refused to discuss the allegations. In private conversations with MKs and aides, she insisted that she had not lied about her educational background.
Earlier this week, it was also revealed that Tartman had filed a disability claim following a 1997 traffic accident. Tartman claimed she could not work more than four hours a day and was awarded NIS 2.5 million by her insurance company.
Following that report, Mks questioned whether Tartman was capable of being a minister.
In an interview with Haaretz, Tartman said her long and short- term memory and her powers of concentration were still compromised, but that she had learned how to work around the problem.
Tartman has also been accused of being a "racist" by left-wing and Arab lawmakers, for several bills that she has proposed. One of those bills, which was voted down by the plenum, called for revoking the citizenship of anyone who did not sign a declaration of loyalty to the state.
The watchdog organization Ometz asked Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz on Tuesday to investigate who was responsible for writing in Tartman's resume that she has an master's degree, saying that whoever had done so could be charged with forgery or fraud.
"There is good reason to investigate who was responsible for publishing the false and misleading information in MK Tartman's curriculum vitae," Ometz representative Boaz Arad told Mazuz.
He said the punishment for forgery or obtaining something by deceit was up to three years in prison. Under "aggravated circumstances," the second charge carries a sentence of up to five years, he said.
Also Tuesday, the Movement for Quality Government lodged a complaint with the Knesset Ethics Committee against Tartman for allegedly publishing false information about her education.
"The allegations are serious," the organization wrote to committee chairman Haim Oron (Meretz).
"Misleading the public pulls the ground from underneath the activities of the elected official and damages public confidence in the elected officials and the honor of the Knesset."
Dan Izenberg contributed to this report.