Lieberman Resigns as Foreign Minister

Yisrael Beiteinu chair, charged with fraud and breach of trust, denies plans to seek plea bargain, says he will go to court to prove his innocence.

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Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman handed his letter of resignation to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday morning, following the announcement of his imminent indictment on charges of fraud and breach of trust.

The resignation will officially go into effect on Tuesday morning at 10 A.M.

Lieberman told reporters before the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem that his resignation was a "temporary separation only,' adding that he hopes "the break will be as short as possible."

Lieberman, who is the chairman of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, said he was not "personally bothered", but was worried more about his constituents. He also said he was planning to bolster his campaign efforts ahead of the upcoming January 22 elections.

"This will give me more time for activities ahead of the elections, and for meeting with activists on the ground," he said.

The Yisrael Beiteinu chairman also denied reports that he planned to seek a plea bargain with the prosecutor, clarifying that he would go to trial to prove his innocence. "I very much hope this will be a quick process," he said. "My intention is not to take a plea bargain, but to go to court. This is the correct and appropriate path, and we must make sure that the process is quick."

Lieberman announced his decision on Friday afternoon, explaining that he was seeking the swiftest possible judicial disposition of the case. The announcement came after he had insisted, as late as Thursday afternoon, that he had no plans to resign.

Lieberman is accused of trying to promote Israel's ambassador to Belarus, Ze'ev Ben Aryeh, after the latter handed over confidential information about a judicial inquiry regarding the minister's affairs in Belarus.

Lieberman's attorneys said their client wanted the matter dealt with speedily so he could run for the Knesset with the matter behind him. Disposition of a criminal case in just five weeks is an ambitious goal without a bargain between the defense and prosecution, so it is clear why Lieberman is not ruling out a plea bargain.

"I am doing this because I am convinced that Israel's citizens should be able to go to the polls after this matter has been settled - and I can continue to serve the State of Israel and Israel's citizens as part of a strong, united leadership," he said.

The foreign minister said he had decided to resign and immediately lift his parliamentary immunity. "Although I know that I did not break any law, after so many years of legal actions, investigation and wiretaps ... I hope after 16 years of investigations against me I can end this issue quickly without delay and completely clear my name."

A plea bargain would mean Lieberman would have to admit to, and be convicted of, criminal charges. However, he has every reason to sign an agreement if the prosecution agrees to forgo a finding of moral turpitude in his actions.

It is considered unlikely that Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein will agree to give up on the moral turpitude element without a court hearing. It is also considered unlikely that Lieberman would sign a plea bargain unless it excludes moral turpitude.

Lieberman released his statement after a lengthy meeting with his attorneys on Friday morning, and another meeting with his political advisers at Yisrael Beiteinu campaign headquarters.

Lieberman's attorney Nati Simhoni told Haaretz Saturday: "We expressed our opinion that Lieberman does not have to resign. However, we respect his decision."

The Justice Ministry spokesman, Moshe Cohen, said in response: "The indictment is ready to be submitted. The prosecution will accede to any defense request to expedite the proceedings."

Lieberman's attorneys said they did not dispute the facts of the indictment, but rather mainly their legal interpretation - that is, whether Lieberman's actions were criminal and whether they carried moral turpitude. If agreement cannot be reached with the prosecution on the matter of moral turpitude, Lieberman's legal team believes that in light of the consensus over the facts, only one or two court sessions will be required to resolve the legal issues.

If that happens, there is a possibility that Lieberman could stand for election still facing the indictment. That would not prevent him from taking his Knesset seat, but he would have to wait until the court ruled on the indictment before being appointed a minister.

According to the Basic Law on the Government (1992), a person cannot be appointed minister for seven years after completion of a sentence for an offense bearing moral turpitude. A plea bargain stating that Lieberman's offenses do not constitute moral turpitude would allow him return to the cabinet even if he were convicted.

Senior officials in the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu ticket said Lieberman would retain his party leadership and run for Knesset. Prime Minister Netanyahu announced he would not be appointing a new foreign minister, but he is taking responsibility for the foreign affairs portfolio in the remaining weeks until the election.

The prime minister's bureau said Netanyahu had spoken with Lieberman on Friday. Netanyahu told Lieberman he hopes he will prove his innocence in the only remaining matter, and that he would return soon to a senior post in the government.

As for Lieberman's term as a Knesset member, if he is convicted before the election of offenses bearing moral turpitude and is not sentenced to imprisonment, he will have to resign from the current Knesset but will still be allowed to run for the next Knesset.

If he is convicted after he has been reelected to the Knesset, he will have to resign his seat immediately.

On Friday morning, a few hours before Lieberman announced his resignation, Meretz chairwoman Zahava Gal-On petitioned the High Court of Justice, asking that the court direct the prime minister to dismiss Lieberman.

Gal-On also asked the court to instruct the attorney general to append to the indictment a legal opinion that the alleged offenses carried moral turpitude. Over the weekend Gal-On said that she welcomed Lieberman's decision, which "prevented the shame that would have later been caused him."

Avigdor Lieberman. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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