Court acquits Israel's former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman of corruption charges


Former Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (C) as he exits the courtroom after hearing the verdict in his trial on charges of fraud and breach of trust, on November 6, 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel.


Uriel Sinai

A court found Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's former foreign minister and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's senior coalition partner, innocent of all charges in a corruption trial on Wednesday.

Lieberman, a polarizing, populist right-wing stalwart, resigned from the top foreign ministry job last December, when he was indicted on charges of fraud and breach of trust mere weeks after elections had been called, and only a week after Netanyahu had announced the merger of their two parties — Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu.

The allegations involved Lieberman trying to promote a former diplomat who passed him information on another investigation into Lieberman's dealings.

After a lengthy and leak-prone prosecution, the strange saga ended with an expeditious trial and a unanimous verdict by three judges in the Jerusalem District Court. While the judges said they believed Lieberman acted improperly in not disclosing his connection to the diplomat, they did not believe him guilty of criminal activity.

"This chapter is behind me. And I am focusing on the challenges ahead, and there are plenty of challenges," Lieberman said as he left the courtroom.

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The acquittal forestalled a shake-up in Netanyahu's coalition government. Lieberman will likely return to his former post as foreign minister and could be sworn in as soon as Monday, according to Knesset sources. He's expected to exert even greater political influence in Israel and the foreign arena.

Netanyahu was in a private meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry to discuss the latest push for peace talks with the Palestinians when Lieberman's acquittal was announced, delaying a statement from his office.

European representatives in Jerusalem scrutinized Wednesday's proceedings with concern, many foreseeing a renewal of the factious relations that characterized Lieberman's previous term in office. 

While Netanyahu attempts a high-wire act negotiating between the demands of the international community and his own political base on the right, Lieberman, now a free agent, actively opposes the nation's current positions on the US-led peace talks and the new diplomatic initiative towards Iran.

Late last month, Lieberman said on Israeli Radio that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas "is not a partner in peace," so "there is no point in currently seeking a permanent settlement."

Lieberman's acquittal poses a predicament for Netanyahu, according to Israeli political observers. While the acquittal allows Netanyahu to return Lieberman — a reliable ally — to a foreign ministry that has remained without a leader since his resignation, Netanyagu will also have to contend with a newly confident Lieberman asserting himself as the leader of the nation's hard right.

Netanyahu's office, after nearly an hour's delay, released a statement stating he had spoken with Lieberman and said, "I congratulate you on your unanimous acquittal and am pleased that you are returning to the government. We will continue to work together for the good of Israel."

The opposition Labor Party's leader Shelly Yachimovich called on the public prosecutor to appeal the verdict, and urged Netanyahu not to re-appoint Lieberman foreign minister.