Foreign Minister Lieberman: Back in the game

By Anshel Pfeffer, November 7, 2013
Acquitted: Avigdvor Lieberman

Acquitted: Avigdvor Lieberman

The judges of the Jerusalem Magistrates Court not only exonerated Avigdor Lieberman from charges of fraud and breach of trust on Wednesday, they accepted all the main claims of his defence team, effectively quashing any chance for the State Prosecutor to appeal and overturn the verdict.

Mr Lieberman’s path back to the cabinet — most likely in his former position as foreign minister — is now wide open.

Furthermore, for the first time this century, he will be able to pursue his political ambitions unhindered by police investigations and the threat of criminal indictments.

For Israeli politics, that means, above all, one thing: the struggle within the right wing to succeed Benjamin Netanyahu is on.

Not that the prime minister has indicated that he is planning his retirement any time soon and, with his old chief of staff and erstwhile electoral partner back in government, the Netanyahu coalition is ensured a period of stability.

His priority will be to reassert himself as the power-broke

At a meeting of the joint Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu parliamentary faction on Sunday, Mr Lieberman was acting as if his acquittal was already in the bag, and spoke of creating a forum of coalition party leaders to peacefully work out differences between the warring factions on issues such as the release of Palestinian prisoners and new civil marriage legislation.

For now, he is broadcasting stability and, after a year out of the cabinet, Mr Lieberman needs a period to realign himself politically.

As soon as he returns to the Foreign Ministry, which could be as early as next week, it will be interesting to see his attitude to the talks between Israel and the PA.

Mr Lieberman is no fan of these negotiations, saying in the past that Israel should seek the removal of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and there is no indication that he has changed his views. But since the Palestinian channel is being run jointly by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and the Prime Minister’s Office, for now Mr Lieberman will probably remain silent and concentrate on pursuing other diplomatic objectives, perhaps breathing some life back into a deeply demoralised foreign service.

His priority, however, now that his personal legal sagas are over, will be to reassert himself as Israel’s main power-broker.

Mr Lieberman’s position was eroded by the general election in January in which the joint list with Likud lost a quarter of the two parties’ Knesset seats and two new young political stars, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid, rose to prominence. Later this month, Yisrael Beiteinu will hold its annual conference and the first order of business will be whether to pursue formal unification with Likud or remain an independent party.

Most party insiders believe their leader will prefer to preserve his independence since being part of Likud will drag him into bruising battles with at least half a dozen ministers already positioning themselves for leadership on the day after Netanyahu.

By strengthening his own party, Mr Lieberman is also preparing an exit strategy for the moment he feels he has more to gain in opposition.

Such a move could come if the government is forced to make significant concessions in a peace treaty with the Palestinians. This outcome would undoubtedly split the right and create the opportunity for Mr Lieberman to support the prime minister in return for his endorsement on the succession, or to strike out alone as leader of the hardline right.

Last updated: 11:40am, November 7 2013