Israeli minister faces criminal charges

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Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli foreign minister, faces criminal charges for fraud, money-laundering and witness tampering, in the latest in a series of scandals to hit the country’s political elite.

Israel’s justice ministry said Mr Lieberman was informed by the attorney-general that he was “considering” an indictment, one of the last formal steps before charges are filed. Mr Lieberman has the right to defend himself in a hearing, a move that would delay any indictment for several months at least.

Mr Lieberman, speaking to party supporters after news of the probable charges broke, said: “I know and you know that I always acted in accordance with the law, and there is no reason for worry . . . I finally will have an opportunity to prove that I acted lawfully.”

The case against the outspoken rightwinger centres on allegations that he received large sums of money from foreign donors, without declaring them to parliament and other authorities. According to Israeli media reports, Mr Lieberman is also suspected of trying to influence the police investigation against him. The probe was first opened about 10 years ago.

The foreign minister has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, and has accused Israeli police and prosecutors of fighting a politically motivated campaign to bring him down. Mr Lieberman, who was born in the present-day Moldova, has long styled himself as a political outsider, and argues that the criminal inquiry has only served to increase his popularity.

However, he has also said that he will resign from the cabinet if indicted – a step that would plunge the Israeli government into fresh turmoil.

The loss of one of the most senior cabinet members would be a blow in itself to the coalition government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu. But the prime minister could also lose his majority in parliament, should Mr Lieberman decide to remove all 15 members of his Yisrael Beiteinu party from the governing alliance.

Mr Lieberman, who lives in a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank, has long been one of the most controversial political leaders in Israel. He has been particularly critical of Israel’s 1.5m-strong Arab minority, accusing its leaders of disloyalty and threatening to curb civil and political rights for Israeli-Palestinians. He has frequently lashed out at rival politicians at home and leaders abroad, including Hosni Mubarak, the former Egyptian president.

The foreign minister has also often clashed with Mr Netanyahu, adopting a more hawkish and strident tone than the prime minister. In a speech at the UN general assembly last September, Mr Lieberman cast strong doubt over the peace process, saying it would take “decades” to agree a deal with the Palestinians. His comments came shortly after Mr Netanyahu opened a new round of talks with the Palestinian leadership.

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