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Lieberman's 'Temporary Departure' Is Becoming a Political Turning Point

What was originally characterized as a minor legal road bump could end up spelling permanent exile from politics for Avigdor Lieberman. Meanwhile, some eager candidates for the foreign minister post are chomping at the bit.

Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn
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Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn

At first glance, Avigdor Lieberman's resignation from the foreign minister post looked like it would be short vacation, "a temporary separation," as he himself spun it. After a quick trial, a convenient plea bargain or a conviction not involving moral turpitude, Lieberman would jump back into a senior position in Benjamin Netanyahu's next government. Perhaps he would get another term as foreign minister or even an upgrade to defense minister.

The spin was so convincing that we didn't even bother to size up Lieberman's 44 months as foreign minister when he resigned. You don't sum up one's political career if he's about to jump back into the game. But in recent days, it's become increasingly clear that the Yisrael Beiteinu chairman won't return to a ministerial seat anytime soon. Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein and his colleagues in the State Prosecutor's Office got a tongue-lashing for closing the main case against Lieberman, and for the feeble and incomplete investigation into the case involving the ambassador to Belarus – and then they decided to fight fire with fire. They announced they would include a moral turpitude clause in the indictment, and the continuing investigation is likely to lead to a harsher indictment against the ex-foreign minister.

Of course, everything is still up in the air: Weinstein promised indictments in other cases and then did an about-face, or a court could acquit Lieberman or find that his crime did not involve moral turpitude. [A moral turpitude conviction would ban him from politics for seven years under Israeli law.] Despite this, what was originally a minor problem, a trivial footnote to more serious investigations, now threatens to sideline Lieberman and remove him from a leadership position for quite some time.

If that's the case, we can sum up Lieberman's time as Israel's senior diplomat as follows: He was effectively banned from many Western capitals and focused his attention "between Prague and Kishinev." According to Lieberman, this helped garner support from nations who stood by Israel, or at least didn't vote against it, during the UN General Assembly vote to recognize Palestine as a non-member observer state. That is a slight, unimportant consolation prize.

The refusal of Americans and Western Europeans to recognize Lieberman as a legitimate partner for dialogue -- thanks to his vitriolic public statements and his stance on domestic issues, whether against Israeli Arabs or human rights organizations – left him sidelined from central arenas.

Lieberman is not responsible for the stalemate in peace talks, or for Israel's increasing international isolation. Benjamin Netanyahu can take the blame for these failures, even if Lieberman, his senior partner in the outgoing coalition, drove him to adopt harsher stances toward the Palestinian Authority and "the world." Lieberman inflicted the greatest damage in Israel's international ties when he stubbornly opposed any Israeli apology to Turkey over the raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla in 2010 [in which nine Turkish activists were killed]. If Tzipi Livni were foreign minister at the time, it's safe to assume that the crisis with Turkey would have been prevented or resolved.

Livni is now angling to be foreign minister in the next government. She is hoping that her Hatnuah party will clinch enough Knesset seats in the upcoming vote or that Netanyahu, facing a barrage of international pressure, will be prompted to add a moderate face to his next government.

There are also Likud ministers – like Gideon Sa'ar, for one – who would love a promotion in the next cabinet and would be happy to step into Lieberman's shoes. Last week, in the newspaper Maariv, Netanyahu hinted that, after the election, he would assume foreign minister duties until Lieberman's legal troubles end, even if it takes a long time.

This show of solidarity with his flagging political partner is touching, but such declarations about portfolios and appointments tend to fade once the election is over and circumstances change. Lieberman's timeout from the game, which appears to be growing longer by the day, will transform the upcoming elections into a battle over the Foreign Ministry.

Avigdor Lieberman on Dec. 20, 2012.Credit: Nir Keidar

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