Avigdor Lieberman is Israel's Foreign Minister, as well as the ruling head of Yisrael Beytenu (Israel our Home), a political party originally focused on immigrants from the former Soviet Union with campaign posters in Russian and Hebrew.
Lieberman began his political career as an activist in the Likud student organization at the Hebrew University. His first prominent position was as Director of the Prime Minister's Office during Benyamin Netanyahu's first term as Prime Minister. He has alternated close to Netanyahu, and moving apart to create his own posture and following. Most recently, he has moved toward the center from what had been at various times positions that typed him as a rightist, and sometimes a wild rightist pointedly ignored by leaders of other western countries.
Lieberman's reputation features a tough guy visage, who speaks what some see as the truth despite what others do not want to hear, especially about the intention of Arabs, and what Israel ought to do about them. Prominent in his posture is an oft-repeated proposal to trade a substantial portion of Israel's Arabs to the Palestinians in exchange for their acceptance of Israel's acquisition of settlements over the 1967 borders.
The chances of Israeli Arabs agreeing to that, or the Supreme Court going along in the face of certain challenges are somewhere close to zero.
Lieberman spent the better part of a decade under police investigation for one or another criminal offense. The list of allegations included payments received illegally from foreign supporters, money laundering, and making a political appointment in exchange for information illegally obtained about a police investigation. One case finally reached a trial, which detractors claimed was for the most minor of Lieberman's offenses. The judges found him not guilty of a criminal offense, even though they criticized him for improper conduct.
Lieberman's support has changed over the course of his career. His constituency is no longer primarily Russian, insofar as close to 25 years since the onset of a million person migration many of the Russian speakers--especially the children who now outnumber the original migrants--have acquired an Israeli identity. They speak Hebrew without a foreign accent, may be married to non-Russian speakers, and choose their politics without the ethnic concerns of immigrants.
I once heard from a Russian friend that he knew Lieberman was a thief, "but he's our thief." More recently, the same friend said that he had abandoned Lieberman, insofar as he was no longer focusing on issues important to the Russian community. Among those concerns are easy conversion to Judaism for those without a Jewish mother, and civil marriages for those who do not qualify for a religious marriage.
Until last week, Lieberman was widely viewed as a king maker in the current Israeli election campaign. He had separated himself from Netanyahu, his political party was a likely factor in post-election maneuverings to create a government, and a potential partner of something a bit to the left or a bit to the right.
Then news broke about a long running police investigation about a Deputy Minister, a former Minister, and a number of other officials spread across the range of Israeli government offices, municipalities, and a variety of organizations in the fields, of sport, social services, and health that rely on government funding for a large part of their budgets.
What unites most of the people under investigation is their affiliation with Lieberman's political party.
Allegations are that government officials funneled money to organizations in exchange for getting some of it back to them personally, or having the organizations make personnel appointments or target programs in ways to help the party of the official who approved a grant of money.
Lieberman himself claims no knowledge of what those close to him have been doing. A loose translation of remarks from a prominent political commentator is, "If you believe that, I have a bridge you might want to buy."
Lieberman has gone on the offensive, charging political motivations against him and his party in the investigations.
Associated with Israel's current scandal is its version of a phenomenon that has spread widely in many countries. Governments rely increasingly on quasi-governmental organizations to provide public services. They include clinics, health funds (HMOs), hospitals, schools, universities, sports clubs, senior citizens' homes and clubs, companies that supply security guards, organizations to prevent drug and alcohol abuse or to wean addicts from dependence, privately run prisons, transportation facilities, parks, and who knows what else. They rely on a combination of government money, fees for service, and private contributions. The formal arrangements call for supervision by one or another government department, but there are too many of them for the supervision to be anything close to thorough. Often they receive money, and supposedly supervision from both national and local authorities. State as well as local governments and federal agencies are involved in those kinds of activity in the US.
If anyone wants to find imperfections or outright illegalities in public services, the quasi-government sector is a place to begin looking.
The very existence of the organizations reflects the admitted incapacity of governments to control all the services demanded by citizens. Studies by several national governments have found that they cannot be certain about the numbers of such organizations, insofar as they are created, and may go out of business with a minimum of notice. The United States is host to millions of these organizations under the heading of "tax exempt" , with the Government Accountability Office admitting that it was not certain how many were actually functioning, or how many really qualified for the tax exempt status. Israel has tens of thousands of such organizations in every field of public service.
Advocates claim that ideals of creativity, home rule, flexibility and all other good things, occur in the quasi-government sector. No doubt there is a lot of good work being done by these organizations, but one also reads of shoddy practices and political favoritism. There is no general assessment about these organizations--in Israel or anyplace else--that can be described with any degree of confidence.
Defenders explain that those currently accused were simply looking for short cuts in complex funding procedures to assure money for valuable services. So what if I gave a job to someone connected politically? It got us money for an important program?
So far more than 30 individuals, most affiliated with Yisrael Beytenu in government bodies or quasi-government organizations are in police custody or being questioned. Media personnel are waiting for the news that one or more has said the word "Lieberman" in association with illegal activities.
Russian friends and Russians speaking in the media have questioned the motives of the police in deciding to reveal in the midst of an election campaign details of an investigation that has proceeded quietly for over a year.
There may be an element of ethnic hurt in what we hear. Israel's Russians resemble the variety of immigrant groups that came to the US in the 19th and early 20th century. They came with needs and an identity, served as a political resources for "bosses," became the subject of stereotypes, and expressed their sensitivity about jokes, slurs, and serious criticism.
Police say that the timing for going public with their investigations was governed by professional considerations.
If not now, when? Would it be better to announce after an election or after the formation of a government that one of the parties strong enough to be an insider was heavily involved in activities that warranted police investigations?
In pre-scandal polls, Yisrael Beytenu was predicted to be a middle size party, winning 9-11 Knesset seats. The most recent polls have it in the range of 5-8 seats, and the headlines continue.
According to current rules, a party must poll the equivalent of at least four seats in order to sit in the Knesset.
Guilty verdicts are not a foregone conclusion. The police indicate that their investigations are continuing. Lieberman's own record, as well as that of Ehud Olmert, show that the work of the police, the state prosecutor having to decide if there is enough for an indictment, and the courts (if it gets that far) are likely to take years. Israeli judges, in traditions going back to the Talmud, operate with demanding standards for proving intentions to break the law. Procedures involving the funding and supervision of quasi-governmental organizations are sufficiently complex to provide their own escape clauses for defendants' claiming that were operating within poorly defined "rules of the game."
Meantime, we're still looking for a king maker in an election that will occur in March, and the formation of a government out of middle-sized parties--with or without Yisrael Beytenu--that may keep observers busy for who knows how long.