Avigdor Lieberman indicted but not out

Confident: Avigdor Lieberman addresses his party conference in Jerusalem on Wednesday

Confident: Avigdor Lieberman addresses his party conference in Jerusalem on Wednesday

He may have finally been indicted, but in the political arena, Avigdor Lieberman still holds all the cards.

With the best legal expertise shekels can buy, the Foreign Minister knows he can afford to play a waiting game.

Despite this week's long-awaited but still dramatic announcement that Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein is to press charges against him for money-laundering and fraud, a casual listener at Wednesday night's Yisrael Beiteinu conference would have been hard-pressed to detect the slightest sign of worry on Lieberman's face.

It took a full 30 minutes for him to refer directly to the charges.

"You know me," he told party members. "I have always acted according to the law and I have nothing to worry about. After 15 years, I will finally have the chance to prove that."

In fact, Mr Lieberman's entire speech was a response to the indictment.

Even as cries for his resignation began, he was having none of it. In a tough, pragmatic tone, he ran through the party's legislative achievements, issued a stern warning to Hamas in Gaza, ruled out any concessions to the Palestinian Authority, excoriated Israeli human rights groups and laid a time-bomb on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's doorstep.

And he promised that the party would continue to push the Conversion Law in the next Knesset session, which is certain to trigger a coalition crisis with the strictly Orthodox
parties.

As in all his speeches, Mr Lieberman managed to sound both hardline and practical at the same time. After tributes to the settlers and criticism of the disengagement from Gaza, he extended an olive branch, calling for the leaders of the three largest parties - Likud, Kadima and, of course, his own - to come to an agreement on a diplomatic initiative.

So what if he had just been charged, pending a hearing, with crimes that could earn him a total of 22 years in prison? The Foreign Minister is not about to depart the political stage.

He is set on presenting himself in the next elections as a challenger to Mr Netanyahu, not only as the real leader of the Israeli right, but also - to the mainstream Israeli electorate - as the only statesman with a coherent plan.

But what about the indictment? Mr Lieberman's lawyers will now work on buying him time. While previous Supreme Court rulings dictate that a minister who has been indicted on criminal charges must resign, he still has a right to a hearing before the final charges are brought to court.

The lawyers will first be given time to go through the evidence, the results of 15 years of investigation into Mr Lieberman's financial affairs. These include a raft of shell firms which he allegedly used to launder money and funnel funds to family members and political campaigns. His lawyers will be given months to do this. Then the Attorney General will have to hold a lengthy hearing and go through still more deliberations.

This gives a lot of time for political manoeuvring and, even if Mr Lieberman is finally forced to resign, a trial will take years and will be no barrier to his running in the next elections.

So why be forced to resign by a criminal indictment, when there are so many opportunities for running the Netanyahu coalition aground?

The Foreign Minister has put the Prime Minister on notice: he has nothing now to lose by pulling his 15 Knesset members out of the government, forcing Mr Netanyahu to choose between early elections or his nightmare of a coalition with Tzipi Livni's Kadima.

Last updated: 11:15am, April 14 2011