Until When, Mr. Foreign Minister?

Given the investigation's final phase and the severity of the suspicions against Lieberman, 'extraordinary' circumstances have come to pass that obligate his resignation or dismissal as foreign minister.

The police's announced intention to recommend trying Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on serious charges, including bribery, money laundering, falsifying documents and fraud, creates a new set of circumstances regarding his future in office before the attorney general's decision on whether to indict.

The main reason is that the Lieberman case is likely to last many months, with a final decision coming only after a hearing in around one year. Such a decision is liable to be delayed due to the planned resignation of Attorney General Menachem Mazuz at the beginning of next year. Since we may assume that Lieberman's position, or that of his political proxies, will be factored into the appointment of Mazuz's successor, we're liable to see a repeat of the Roni Bar-On fiasco. (In 1997, a politician who was suspected of committing crimes - Aryeh Deri - was found to have intervened in Bar-On's appointment as attorney general.)

The police recommendation is not the final word, nor does it obligate the State Prosecutor's Office, but it is hard to underestimate its importance given the precedents. In the cases involving former ministers Abraham Hirchson and Shlomo Benizri, for example, the attorney general accepted the police recommendation. The rejection of the police's position in the Bar-On matter was an exception.

The police recommendation in the Lieberman case is not news to the State Prosecutor's Office even if the authorities must reexamine the evidence. The police investigation was monitored by prosecutors, the state prosecutor and the attorney general. In January, Mazuz issued a statement indicating that the investigation was dealing with "significant suspicions." He notified the High Court of Justice of "the severity of the suspicions."

Now the key questions relate to Lieberman's rights as a suspect. Prosecutors are supposed to carefully weigh the evidence against him with the knowledge that indicting or "consideration" of indicting pending a hearing has direct bearing on his right to due process. We must not limit or deny Lieberman's right to a thorough hearing after his attorneys hear all the evidence.

The question that now arises in full force following the police recommendation concerns the termination of Lieberman's role as foreign minister in the immediate term, or at least if the attorney general announces that he is "weighing" an indictment before a hearing in a few months.

The police's strong suspicions about Lieberman, suspicions the attorney general has called significant and grave, have yet to be raised against a public figure in Israel. The actions for which former ministers Deri and Benizri were convicted pale in comparison to the allegations against Lieberman.

The suspicions about former prime minister Ehud Olmert, which led to his resignation before an indictment, appear paltry when measured against the suspicions that led the police to issue their recommendation in the Lieberman case. Yaakov Neeman resigned as justice minister in 1996 after the police launched an investigation against him for allegedly falsifying an affidavit, an act that also appears minor when compared to the suspicions against Lieberman.

Neeman's resignation, which came after he forwent his right to a hearing, happened during a trial in which he was acquitted of all charges. His conduct should serve as a guide for Lieberman, who was the driving force behind Neeman's appointment as justice minister in the current cabinet. Lieberman is clinging to the levers of power offered by his government portfolio and a High Court ruling that requires the prime minister to dismiss a minister who refuses to resign solely if a final decision has been made to indict.

Nonetheless, we ought to remember that every High Court ruling on the matter - be it the Deri case or other instances - emphasizes the probability of "extraordinary" circumstances in which the very existence of a police investigation is sufficient to require a minister's removal from office. Given the investigation's final phase and the severity of the suspicions against Lieberman, "extraordinary" circumstances have come to pass that obligate his resignation or dismissal as foreign minister. This is the case from a legal standpoint and certainly from an ethical and public standpoint, both from within and without.