Avigdor Lieberman cleared of corruption charges

This story orignally appeared on themedialine.org.

Former Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was acquitted of charges of fraud and breach of trust in a verdict that paves the way for his return to the foreign ministry, and sets him up as a possible successor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The decision came as US Secretary of State John Kerry met the Israeli and Palestinian leaders in attempt to nudge negotiations forward. His arrival coincided with reports of an “explosion” in the talks, and Palestinian threats to quit the Kerry-brokered process unless Israel promises to stop all construction in post-1967 areas, a demand that Israel says is unacceptable.

Speaking after meeting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Kerry said Washington is not giving up on a peace deal.

“As in any negotiation there will be moments of up and moments of down, and it goes back and forth,” Kerry said. “But I can tell you that President Obama and I are determined, and neither of us will stop in our efforts to pursue the possibility (of peace).”

Israeli analysts played down the reports of a collapse saying both sides are trying to win concessions from the Americans. In fact, speaking in Bethlehem, Kerry announced a gift of $75 million to the Palestinian Authority earmarked for jobs and upgrade for its infrastructure.

“I don’t think they’re on the verge of collapse,” Jonathan Rynhold, a professor of political science at Israel’s Bar Ilan University told The Media Line. “If you follow the history of the negotiations, every time the Americans come there’s a crisis.”

He said that both the Israeli and the Palestinian leaders are negotiating seriously. Their representatives have met 17 times since negotiations restarted in July after a three-year hiatus. At the same time, there is a sense that the gap between the minimum each side is willing to accept is growing, and the talks seem unlikely to produce a real agreement.

“They have to show the Americans that they’re negotiating seriously,” Rynhold said. “But they’re also preparing for the day when the negotiations will collapse, and they’re getting into position to blame the other side.”

The new tensions came as Moldavian-immigrant Avigdor Lieberman celebrated his acquittal on all counts after a 17-year-investigation and legal proceedings. Lieberman, the founder of Yisrael Beytenu [Israel is our home] – a party considered to be hard-line and right wing that is supported by many of Israel’s one million Russian immigrants, celebrated with a visit to Judaism’s holiest site, the Western Wall.

“This chapter is behind me,” a smiling Lieberman said after the verdict. “I’m focusing on the challenges that await us – and there are plenty of challenges.”

Israeli politicians rushed to congratulate Lieberman, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has been filling in as foreign minister while Lieberman’s legal woes lingered on. Lieberman is widely expected to return to the foreign ministry, although that must be approved by the cabinet and the parliament.

“I am happy to welcome him back to the government,” Orit Struck, a parliament member from the right-wing Bayit Hayehudi [Jewish Home] party told The Media Line. “Lieberman is right-wing and he knows how to use his political power to support the state of Israel.”

Struck lives in the West Bank city of Hebron, which has been a flashpoint for violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Earlier this week, a bus she was traveling on between Jerusalem and Hebron was firebombed, although she was not injured.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Israeli Arab Knesset member Haneen Zoabi said Lieberman will strengthen Israel’s “racist” policies.

“Unfortunately being racist is not a criminal violation in Israel,” Zoabi told The Media Line. “He is powerful and he was cleverer than the investigators.”

Lieberman has angered Israeli’s Arab citizens, who make up one-fifth of the population, by calling for a loyalty oath before they will be allowed to vote. He has also called on redrawing Israel’s borders to allow the annexation of parts of the West Bank in exchange for ceding land heavily populated by Israel’s Arab citizens.

Even if Lieberman returns to the foreign ministry, he is unlikely to have a major effect on Israel’s policies, at least in the short-term. Netanyahu has made it clear that he is the one in charge of the talks with the Palestinians. He has also steered Israel’s relationship with the US, keeping Lieberman in Israel during most of his trips to Washington.

Israel does not have term limits, and Netanyahu can run for prime minister as many times as he wants. Yet, if the PM does try to push through a peace deal, Lieberman could become the leader of the opposition to any deal.

Lieberman’s expected return comes as Israel’s image abroad is taking a beating. There are growing calls in Europe to boycott Israeli-made goods, and to bring Israel’s military officials to trial in the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Expressing a fear held by some of Israel’s advocates, Rynhold opined that “Lieberman’s return will have a negative impact on Israel’s image in Europe and especially among liberal American Jews. In Europe, many people don’t like Israel anyway. But in America, they do like us, and he could alienate our liberal supporters.”