Can Israeli Politics Exist Without Avigdor Lieberman?

The Yisrael Beiteinu chairman has become such a fixture in Israeli politics that the idea of an Evet-sized hole around the cabinet table is almost unthinkable. Almost.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Only two weeks ago, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein announced he would not be indicting Avigdor Lieberman over money-laundering allegations and that what remained, after more than a decade of investigations, was one minor charge of breach of trust. Lieberman swiftly resigned as foreign minister in preparation for a speedy trial that seemed destined to end in a slap on the wrist and a quick return to government. Now, the secondary charge has ballooned, following further police investigation into suspicions that Lieberman pressed Foreign Ministry officials to appoint the man who had illegally supplied Lieberman with privileged information as ambassador to Latvia. It's safe to say the case just might result in a much more serious sentence for Likud-Beiteinu's No. 2.

Lieberman has become such a fixture in Israeli politics that the idea of an Evet-sized hole around the cabinet table is almost unthinkable. Despite his resignation, he certainly isn't planning on going anywhere for now, and he has hit the campaign trail with an uncustomary relish. But today (Sunday), after 16 years of various criminal investigations, Lieberman's status will change: He will officially be a man under indictment. He still has the presumption of innocence, but is prevented from holding office (though not from being elected to the next Knesset) until his case ends. And if his sentence contains the damning label of "kalon" – or moral turpitude – he will be barred from politics for a lengthier period. In such a case, his power, as much as he will try to wield it behind the scenes, will be significantly diminished.

Here are three possible scenarios for a legal and political outcome of the Lieberman saga:

A short-term absence – This is what Lieberman was banking on when he resigned, before the indictment seemed so threatening, and he is still acting as if this is the only possible outcome: A short court case that ends in an acquittal, or a very light sentence without moral turpitude attached. Lieberman will have to sit outside the cabinet room for a few months, but will remain a Knesset member. If his legal schedule leaves him less time for politics, his enforcer, Yisrael Beiteinu Secretary General Faina Kirshenbaum, will make sure the 13 or 14 MKs he appointed stay in line. Lieberman will control the coalition, and his hold on Benjamin Netanyahu, through them.

In interviews, he has already made it clear that he intends to take the key ministerial portfolios (Interior and Housing) away from Shas in the next government and have them awarded to his people. Meanwhile, Netanyahu, in addition to serving as prime minister, will serve as caretaker of one of the senior cabinet posts – defense, finance or foreign affairs – until Lieberman's legal woes are sorted out. In this scenario, Lieberman will have no interest in rattling the new coalition, as he intends to be the main power-broker – and Netanyahu's potential successor – upon his triumphant return after a few months on the outside.

A medium-term absence – There are two scenarios in which Lieberman could be sidelined from politics for a year or so. His case, which seems relatively simple, may turn out to be more convoluted than meets the eye. The judges could deliberate for months on end and then there will be an appeal from either side to the Supreme Court. At the end, Lieberman may emerge with a relatively light sentence, without any prison time, but with moral turpitude attached, meaning he could not serve in the current (by then the next) Knesset term as an MK or a minister.

In this case, Lieberman would have no interest in waiting for four years until he his moral turpitude ceases to be a barrier. The MKs at his command could suddenly become an internal opposition within the coalition. They could topple the government over a wide range of issues which would become matters of principle, and prepare the ground for the impatient leader's return.

A long-term absence – Breach of trust is an ephemeral charge, difficult to prove beyond a doubt; as a result, it is rarely punished by actual imprisonment. But the new clauses added to Lieberman's indictment over the last two weeks signal that the State Prosecutor's Office, still smarting at the attorney general's decision to close the main case, is gunning for a maximum sentence.

If Lieberman is sentenced to jail for more than three months, and if moral turpitude is attached to his sentence, he would be prevented from holding office or running for Knesset for seven years starting from his release date. Add to that the time from now until his case is over, the actual prison term and the time that must elapse between the end of the seven-year ban and the next elections are held – and Lieberman could be out of frontline politics for a decade, if convicted. Not even he can remain as influential for such a long absence.

If this turns out to be the case, Yisrael Beiteinu MKs will gradually feel free to pursue their own political destinies. Hardcore loyalists will remain faithful to Lieberman and obey his agenda, but most of them will realize they need a new patron to ensure political survival. Chances are they will merge into Likud, where a vicious battle to be anointed Netanyahu's successor will ensue once it becomes clear that Lieberman is out of the picture for the foreseeable future.

Avigdor Lieberman. How long will his absence from politics last?Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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