Jerusalem (AFP) – Avigdor Lieberman is hoping for a quick return to government after resigning as Israel’s foreign minister over corruption charges, but his bid for a speedy resolution could be a gamble, Israeli media said Sunday.
On Sunday morning, Lieberman officially submitted his resignation after informally announcing it on Friday, a day after the attorney general decided to charge the ultranationalist leader with fraud and breach of trust offences.
The resignation takes effect within 48 hours, but Lieberman made clear he did not expect to be out of government for long.
“I’m leaving the government very temporarily… I hope that my trial will be quick, it’s the right way,” he said, adding that he would not “rule out” any resolution, including a plea bargain with the attorney general.
Lieberman’s resignation from the government still leaves him with his Knesset seat, and he will stand in a snap 22 January general election, paving the way for a return to government if he can quickly resolve the case against him.
“He’s going, so as to return,” the top-selling Yediot Aharonot wrote. “He understood that to be a member of the next cabinet he must deal as quickly as possible with the charges against him.”
Much of the media speculated that Lieberman would try to reach a plea deal.
“He is seeking a quick and easy plea bargain that would let him off with almost nothing and would bring him back into the cabinet within a few months, where he will choose whatever portfolio he desires; defence, foreign affairs or finance,” the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper wrote in an editorial.
The daily pointed out that Lieberman’s main concern will be to avoid a conviction with a finding of “moral turpitude” and imprisonment, which could prevent him from returning to parliament.
“Lieberman is not worried about a conviction, but the severity and type of moral turpitude that might be attached to it,” the editorial said.
Israeli legal precedent means that a person convicted of a crime with a finding of “moral turpitude” attached to it, as well as a prison sentence, must wait seven years before returning to government.
For now, Lieberman remains head of the rightwing Yisrael Beitenu party, which is running on a joint list with the Likud party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the election.
Polls put the list far ahead of the opposition, with the latest numbers taken before Lieberman’s resignation showing them garnering around 38 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.
It was not yet clear whether the indictment had hurt the list’s chances, though a poll in Yediot Aharonot on Sunday showed 78 per cent of Israelis felt the level of corruption in their governing institutions was “high or very high.”
“The ideal situation for him [Lieberman] is to put an end to this entire affair before the elections on 22 January,” wrote commentator Shalom Yerushalmi in the Maariv daily.
“To wit, to lift his immunity, to sign a convenient plea bargain agreement, to take a light sentence and to start over as a relatively clean foreign minister.”
Law professor Suzie Navot, also writing in Maariv, warned that holding a trial by January 22 would be “complex,” deeming it “doubtful” that a court would agree to clear its schedule to help speed up the proceedings.
Reaching a plea deal would require court approval, and still contained no guarantee of a resolution before the election, she wrote.
Yerushalmi pointed out that Lieberman’s plan to seek a speedy resolution of the case was something of a gamble, noting that he could find himself out in the cold if the legal process drags on, or the final conviction has a moral turpitude finding attached to it.
“Lieberman is counting on a friendly legal system,” he wrote. “That is a good bet, but he could just find himself in for a nasty surprise.”