Lieberman is down — but never say out

Attorney-general Yehuda Weinstein’s announcement last week that the state prosecution was dropping the main charges against Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, indicting him on only one minor charge of breach of trust, opened up yet another chapter in the never-ending legal saga.

Now the investigators are back to square one, questioning Foreign Ministry officials about whether Mr Lieberman unduly influenced the senior appointments committee in favour of a diplomat who had leaked him information on a police probe into his activities.

Meanwhile, Mr Lieberman announced his resignation last week in the hope of a speedy plea bargain or trial which he believes will end in his acquittal.

Likud Beiteinu’s strategists are now attempting to ascertain whether voters see Mr Lieberman as a habitual criminal or the victim of a left-wing legal establishment.

The candidate is not waiting for their judgment — he made it quite clear this week that his resignation was in no way a departure from politics. In a meeting with party activists in Safed on Tuesday, he said: “Personally, I have no doubt what the result will be in court just as I have no doubt what the election results will be.”

He may no longer be a senior minister but Mr Lieberman has no intention of relinquishing his hold on the levers of power. He is still running for the next Knesset, has total control over his party and, through his electoral pact with Benjamin Netanyahu, will have huge influence over the ministerial appointments in the next government.

The new cabinet will be formed in such a way that Mr Lieberman will be able to return to one of the top posts the moment he extricates himself from his legal troubles.

But when will that happen? The state prosecutor’s office and Mr Lieberman’s lawyers are locked in a battle of wills over the indictment or a possible plea bargain.

Breach of trust is hard to prove and, even if Mr Lieberman is found guilty, the sentence is usually light. The prosecutors, however, are adamant that in any deal or sentencing, Mr Lieberman will be found as having acted with “moral turpitude”, an ill-defined legal term which could prevent him from holding public office again for years to come.

This is the outcome Mr Lieberman is fighting to prevent. He knows that, once barred from office, his influence over the political arena could rapidly fade away.

Last updated: 5:45pm, December 20 2012