Lieberman’s acquittal rattles Israeli politics

Yossi Mekelberg
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The drama surrounding U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s rush to Geneva last week to advance nuclear negotiations with Iran eclipsed the more modestly dramatic affair of the acquittal of the ultra-right wing Israeli politician Avigdor Lieberman of corruption charges.

One should probably not be surprised that, at a time when peace process negotiations are beginning to gain some momentum, and after what seemed like a breakthrough in reaching a deal to contain Iran’s nuclear program, that another court case against an Israeli politician accused of exploiting his ministerial office for his personal benefit attracts little attention. However, the return to the foreign ministry of one of the most bellicose politicians in Israel’s history is bound to have far reaching implications, both in regards to the Iranian nuclear issue and peace with the Palestinians. Mr. Lieberman, who is leading the extreme right wing party Israel B’eitenu (Israel our Home), represents uncompromising positions on both matters. A settler himself, he has always expressed views not conducive to the advancement of peace with the Palestinians, and presented extremely hawkish positions towards resolving the nuclear standoff without resorting to military action against Iran.


Lieberman was indeed cleared on all charges of fraud and breach of trust in a unanimous ruling by three judges. Nevertheless, the same judges cast severe doubt on whether his behavior was suitable for public office. The charges of which he was acquitted last week, alleged that he promoted a diplomat who disclosed information about other police investigations into his affairs. Throughout the years the Moldova born Israeli politician was investigated for an array of allegations concerning exploitation of his various political positions to line his pockets, though he was never put on trial before this case. His judges were clear that “his acts are not proper nor ethical and do not meet the standard expected of a public figure, especially one in the lofty position of minister in the Israeli government.” The Israeli Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein, quite unprecedentedly, reacted to the court’s verdict by pointing out that the verdict was “in the criminal realm,” but that it is for the general public to judge the other aspects of Lieberman’s suitability for high office in Israel. Regrettably, it seems that some leading Israeli politicians have little regard to any moral or ethical standards in public life, as long as they avoid being convicted on criminal charges.

Return to the frontline

His return to frontline politics and particularly to one of the most important positions in government takes place at a crucial time in Israeli domestic and international politics. Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has had a topsy-turvy relationship with Lieberman along the years, was quick to congratulate him and within few days brought him back into the government.

His acquittal fashions him a victim of the system, which was out there to get him, in his own eyes and in the eyes of his supporters

Yossi Mekelberg

He might find Lieberman’s presence in government a useful counterbalance to the younger duo of Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, who he finds almost too challenging to work with, both on personal and political levels. He would rather cut deals with his old rival Lieberman, who may be more formidable and temperamental than the other coalition leaders, but at the same time more predictable as far as his policies are concerned. The prime minister is also shrewd enough to grasp that having Lieberman in the foreign ministry will divert some of the international criticism regarding his hardline policies towards Lieberman who seems to be the happier of the two in playing the “villain” in Israel’s relationships with the world.

However, it seems almost inevitable that a Lieberman free of investigations, indictments and court appearances would covet the prime minister position, and might soon find himself on a collision course with Netanyahu. Lieberman has never concealed either his desire to become the prime minister or the belief that he was suitable to occupy the highest political post in the country, hence Netanyahu’s attempts to keep him at an arm’s length.

Even before he was officially back in the foreign ministry Lieberman has already found a new international cause to pick a fight over; this time with South Africa. In response to the questionable remarks by South Africa’s Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, that that South African ministers are no longer visiting Israel due to solidarity with the Palestinians, Lieberman accused the South African government of creating anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic atmosphere in the country on his Facebook page. To make things worse, he went on to claim to that this atmosphere would lead to pogroms against Jews in the country. He further called South African Jewry to leave the country and immigrate immediately to Israel before it was too late. This is a reflection of the way he sees the world, combined with sheer opportunism of misusing anti-Semitism, in order to gain some cheap political points among Israeli public opinion. He conveniently portrays criticism of Israeli government policies and the treatment of the Palestinians as anti-Semitism. A similar approach in the past contributed to the rift with Turkey during his previous tenure as a foreign minister.


Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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