A three-judge panel will rule today on whether MK Tzachi Hanegbi's perjury conviction consists of moral turpitude, a ruling which could damage his political career. Hanegbi was convicted of delivering false statements in July during his trial on political appointments while environment minister, but cleared of several other charges at the same time.
Hanegbi - a Kadima and former Likud lawmaker who has held six ministerial portfolios in over two decades in government - avoided conviction on cronyism-related charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust.
The State Comptroller's Office had asked the court to attach a turpitude ruling to the sentence and to levy both a suspended prison term and a fine.
Hanegbi's attorney Jacob Weinroth asked the court to clear his client of turpitude and sentence him to a fine and community service.
A suspended sentence would mean Hanegbi would be kept out of the current Knesset but would not bar him from running in the following parliamentary elections.
Ten days ago, Hanegbi's lawyers asked prosecutors to outline the implications of the sentence they intend to levy against the ex-minister. Attorneys asked for specific information regarding the legislator's eligibility to serve as minister for the next seven years, should a suspended sentence be given.
Hanegbi's legal team told the court that finding the lawmaker guilty of turpitude and handing him a suspended sentence is tantamount to barring him from serving as minister for seven years.
State prosecutors, however, told the court that they do not intend to elucidate their positions beyond what is stated in court, and that the defense attorneys' request was "inappropriate."
Should Hanegbi be found guilty of turpitude, he will have to leave his Knesset seat within days. That seat would likely be filled by journalist Nino Abesadze. Abesadze had been slated to take the place of Eli Aflalo, who was expected to leave parliament to take a senior position at the Jewish National Fund, but his appointment became stalled by bureaucratic red tape.
Abesadze, 43, is widely regarded as a spokesperson for dovish immigrants from the former Soviet Union and is a close associate of Kadima leader Tzipi Livni. Several months ago she was the keynote speaker at a large Jerusalem rally organized by the advocacy groups Peace Now and National Left.
Abesadze, born in Tbilisi, Georgia, had a long-running political column for the Russian-language newspaper Vesti, and appeared frequently on Israeli Russian-language television.
Another key question is who will replace Hanegbi as chairman of the Knesset's influential Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
Hanegbi is now in his second term at the committee's helm. After the last Knesset elections, Labor chose not to appoint its own representative to chair the panel, and Hanegbi became the first opposition member to fill the post.
Now, however, Labor is expected to demand the position again, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be forced to choose which party he feels safer entrusting it to.
A decision on turpitude is not likely to be unanimous, as the head of the judiciary panel, Yoel A. Tsur, had already cleared him of perjury and is not expected to find him guilty of any other charges.
After the ruling Hanegbi is scheduled to hold a press conference. Should he be found guilty of turpitude, he is expected to respect the ruling and hold the conference in a location other than the Knesset.
"From Hanegbi's perspective, even if he's found guilty of turpitude, his political career won't really be hurt," an associate said. "Being outside the Knesset for a few months could be good for him."
Hanegbi associates firmly rejected speculation that he might temporarily leave the Knesset with or without a turpitude conviction to run for the leadership of Kadima, or perhaps even Likud. Hanegbi's office yesterday flatly denied the reports.
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