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Middle East

Lieberman's strategic surrender

Israel's foreign minister is known for his blunt words, but Avigdor Lieberman has become more reticent since he announced his resignation. Despite the charges against him, Lieberman plans to run in the January election.

When Israel chooses its new government on January 22, it would be no surprise if the post of foreign minister is once again filled by Avigdor Lieberman - despite the fact that the chairman of the right-wing party, Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home), announced his resignation on Friday (14.12.2012).

"It's obviously a maneuver," said Torsten Reibold, the European representative of the non-profit organization Givat Haviva. Reibold considers it unlikely that Lieberman, foreign minister since 2009, decided to step down on moral grounds. Rather, he said, it seems his resignation is a strategy intended to provide the opposition with as little material as possible in the electoral campaign.

Torsten Reibold

Reibold thinks Lieberman's resignation is all part of a plan

On Thursday, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein announced plans to indict Lieberman for fraud and breach of trust. The foreign minister is alleged to have given a promotion to an Israeli diplomat in Belarus after the diplomat provided him with confidential documents connected to an investigation against Lieberman. Since the mid-1990s, Israel's judiciary has repeatedly launched investigations against the nationalist politician for charges of corruption, fraud, breach of trust and money laundering.

A day after the prosecution made its public accusation, Lieberman proclaimed his innocence and then, to the surprise of Israeli journalists, said he was resigning in order to quickly clear the accusations against him in court. By doing so, Lieberman hopes to once again be granted a ministerial post in the next government. Until that time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will take over the foreign minister's duties.

"Netanyahu is obviously assuming that nothing will come of [this prosecution]," said Reibold. "He has offered Lieberman his support and said that he would be happy if he could welcome him back as foreign minister in the next government."

Strong statements

The conservative foreign minister will not be particularly missed in Europe. "Lieberman is a sort of sledgehammer," Reibold told DW. "He is well known for his scandals."

In October, Lieberman caused a stir when he rejected the criticism of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on Israel's settlement policy, telling her in stark terms that Europe should take care of its own problems before offering advice elsewhere.

A general view of the Israeli settlement Har Homa Foto: UPI Photo/Debbie Hill /Landov +++(c) dpa - Report+++

Israel's settlement policy has met with international criticism

Lieberman was also outspoken at the annual meeting of the EU-Israel Association Council in July, when he expressed his fears that Hezbollah could obtain chemical weapons from Syria and use them to attack Israel. "This is a red line for us, and from our point of view, a clear casus belli," he said in Brussels, using the Latin term for a justification for war.

Reibold, however, is not expecting major changes in Israel's foreign policy and relationship with Europe after the resignation. After all, the prime minister still gives his input - and polls show that Netanyahu will remain in that role after the January election.

Will his fellow countrymen remain faithful?

What Lieberman's resignation means for his party is not yet clear. In the parliamentary election, Yisrael Beiteinu and Netanyahu's Likud party will campaign together. Polls show that they will not win an absolute majority, but that Likud, with an expected 38 of 120 seats, would become the strongest political force.

One group of voters will probably remain true to Lieberman and his party, estimated Gad Lior, bureau chief of the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper in Jerusalem. "He has many followers, most of them immigrants from the former Soviet Union," Lior told DW.

There are about 1 million Russian-born immigrants in Israel, and Lieberman is among them. He was born in the former Soviet Union in 1958 and immigrated to Israel at the age of 20.

It is not yet clear when the proceedings will begin against Lieberman. But if he is convicted, Lior suspects Lieberman will not end up in jail. At most, he thinks the soon-to-be foreign minister will be ordered to pay a fine.

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