Avigdor Lieberman may have a very short period in which to savour his election success. The new kingmaker of Israeli politics has been the target of an ongoing police investigation for almost nine years, and senior officials within the Justice Ministry are now insisting that a formal charge sheet is now imminent.
The allegations against the Yisrael Beiteinu leader include multiple charges of money-laundering through a series of shell companies, with police sources claiming that the investigation has been delayed due to the difficulties of collecting confidential financial information in less-than-cooperative countries around Europe.
Lieberman’s camp, on the other hand, claims that the entire endeavour is politically motivated, re-emerging now after long stagnation at exactly the moment when he is poised to become a senior Cabinet member.
Whatever the truth, the timing could be crucial both for Lieberman’s political career and the coalition being formed by Binyamin Netanyahu.
Lieberman’s long-term strategy has never been a secret. For the last 10 years, he has been steadily building Yisrael Beiteinu from a small, fringe “Russian” party into a senior coalition partner and a potential contender for power. This Knesset term — as the third largest party, and with establishment figures such as former Likud minister Uzi Landau and Danny Ayalon, previously Israel’s ambassador in Washington — Lieberman plans to transform himself into a genuine candidate for the premiership.
However, if and when a charge sheet for Lieberman does appear, he will be blocked from a number of government portfolios. And the moment charges are pressed, he will have to resign from any Cabinet post.
Lieberman will not give up his ambitions and will wage a legal and media war of attrition against the police and the Justice Ministry, while continuing to lead his party with an iron grip.
But that is where he may falter. When Yisrael Beiteinu was a small party of immigrants, it would have been easier for him to remain in control while maintaining that he was being persecuted by “the Left”. But now he is the leader of a much larger party with pretensions of “respectability”, and containing senior members who do not feel beholden to their boss.
For Landau and Ayalon, and other Yisrael Beiteinu MKs, defection to Likud would only be a short hop across the aisle. This would be the first serious dent in Lieberman’s plans to usurp Netanyahu as the leader of Israel’s Right.