A bizarre event held by the Yisrael Beiteinu youth group in a Tel Aviv club took place on Friday night in an attempt to create the impression that the attorney general's decision to charge party chairman Avigdor Lieberman with fraud and breach of trust doesn't concern them at all.
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As usual, Lieberman mocked the press and downplayed the severity of the allegations against him. He said that, as per the advice of his lawyers, he would not be stepping down just yet. Lieberman closed the evening with some sexist humor, commenting on the three women who head the center-left of the political playing field: Tzipi Livni, Shelly Yacimovich, and Zahava Gal-On, calling them "three Polish wenches."
But less than 24 hours later, Lieberman changed his tune and announced that he would resign immediately. Not only the press was surprised by his move; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud ministers like Gideon Sa'ar and Gilad Erdan - who on Thursday threw full support behind Lieberman - were also caught unawares. Netanayhu, Sa'ar and Erdan announced that they respect Israel's legal establishment, but then added a big "but." They claimed that the case in question was minor and meaningless, hinting that there was no reason for Lieberman to rush and quit. One can only imagine how the three of them felt upon hearing the news of Lieberman's decision.
There may be a few reasons why Lieberman decided to resign:
1. In the statement released on Friday by Lieberman, he explained that there was no legal reason for him to resign, according to the advice of his lawyers, due to the nature of the allegations against him. Nonetheless, despite the self-confidence displayed on Thursday night by both the foreign minister and his legal team, he awoke on Friday morning with the realization that if he does not resign of his own accord, he may be forced to do so down the track. One of those "Polish wenches," Meretz chairwoman Zahava Gal-On, had already petitioned the high court with a demand that Prime Minister Netanyahu fire Lieberman. Dozens more petitions of this sort were expected to follow. Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein has not yet made any public comments on the issue of Lieberman's resignation, but it is believed that he would find it difficult - or even plainly refuse – to defend in court Lieberman's continued post as foreign minister. Under such circumstances, Lieberman had no choice but to resign.
2. Lieberman called for a speedy trial on Thursday, expressing hope that the proceedings would be over before the elections. His advisors presented as examples the trials of former minister Rafael Eitan, which lasted only a few weeks, and of former minister Haim Ramon, which lasted four months. According to the optimistic version they are promoting, the case in question is a simple one and can be completed within the remaining month and a half before January's elections. According to the advisors, Lieberman resigned in order to expedite the legal proceedings. This scenario seems overly optimistic. Like all trials, you know how you go in, not how you'll come out.
3. Lieberman's resignation and the fact that he is interested in ending the ordeal as soon as possible my mean that he isn't planning on going to trial at all but, instead, planning to reach a plea bargain with the prosecution. In this case, if he were to plead guilty in exchange for a sentence that doesn't carry the stain of moral turpitude, the door would be open for him to return to the next government as a senior minister such as finance minister or defense minister.
One final comment:
Lieberman may be leaving the Foreign Ministry, but he is most definitely not leaving politics. He will continue to be involved in the "Likud-Beiteinu" campaign, will play a central role in the coalition negotiations after the elections, and will run his party as a member of parliament even if his trial is still in progress. If it is up to Lieberman, his resignation is a temporary setback on his way forward. In an optimistic scenario, his timeout from government will last several weeks. In a more pessimistic scenario, his timeout will last a few months to a year. At any rate, he will be back.