Ex-foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is putting on an unconcerned face over the beefed-up indictment served against him on Sunday.
The amended charge-sheet accuses him of seeking to secure the appointment of Israel’s ambassador to Latvia in return for information on a previous investigation into his activities. If this allegation is proved, it would amount to a serious breach of trust.
In interviews and press statements, Mr Lieberman preferred to focus on political matters, saying that while the legal proceedings bar him from serving in cabinet, he plans to chair the influential Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee in the next Knesset. He also seemed to be confident of his primacy in the next government, claiming that the interior and housing ministries were to be taken away from coalition partner Shas and handed to members of his party.
In reality though, one associate of Mr Lieberman said: “For the first time, the possibility that he will be forced to leave politics for a long while is beginning to loom, that’s why he is so anxious to show that he is in control.”
Three weeks ago, when Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein decided not to indict Mr Lieberman over money-laundering allegations, the breach of trust charge seemed almost nugatory — a small legal bump in the road that the foreign minister could sail over. But all of a sudden, the State Prosecutor’s Office has added damning clauses to the indictment and new witnesses for the prosecution, including the man Mr Lieberman just dropped from the Knesset list, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon.
While the accused is still innocent until proved otherwise, it is now eminently possible that he could emerge from the case with a sentence including a “moral turpitude” clause, barring him from running for office for seven years.
In the case of a lengthy trial and an even longer disbarment from politics, could Mr Lieberman continue to wield behind-the-scenes influence?
At least a third of the members of the party which is expected to form the next government will be Yisrael Beiteinu members, handpicked by Mr Lieberman. If past experience is anything to go by, they will continue to be the most loyal and well-disciplined faction in the Knesset and, through them, Mr Lieberman can control the coalition and conceivably topple Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
His hold over them will remain if he is acquitted or receives a minor sentence and returns to cabinet. But if he is out in the cold for a decade, the leaderless MKs will be looking for a new patron. A few, including party secretary general and unofficial chief whip, Faina Kirschenbaum, will remain loyal but, without Mr Lieberman, there is no Yisrael Beiteinu.
“He he is not a magician,” said one former government official who knows him well. “If he has to spend so much time outside the cabinet and the Knesset, he will lose his powers.”