Israeli politician Avigdor Lieberman acquitted of corruption charges

JERUSALEM — A former Israeli foreign minister, the political brawler and power broker Avigdor Lieberman, was found not guilty Wednesday in a complicated corruption probe, clearing the way for his quick return to the international stage.

Lieberman was charged with fraud and breach of trust. Specifically, he was accused of improperly promoting a former diplomat as Israel’s ambassador to Latvia. Prosecutors alleged that the former diplomat had fed Lieberman insider information about a separate money-laundering investigation — since dropped — of his business dealings.

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Lieberman, 55, is leader of the Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home) party, which serves the interests of Russian-speaking immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Originally from the former Soviet republic of Moldova, he is a larger-than-life wheeler-dealer in Israel’s domestic politics and an often undiplomatic diplomat.

Just a few days ago, Lieberman accused South Africa’s government of anti-Semitism and urged Jews there to leave the country and come to Israel “before it is too late.”

Last year, he accused Europe of failing to condemn a leader of Hamas, the militant Islamic organization that controls the Gaza Strip. Lieberman likened the atmosphere in Europe to the period when the Nazis sent Jews and others to concentration camps during the Holocaust.

In another memorable exchange in 2010, he warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad not to tangle with Israel, telling him: “You and your family will lose the regime. Neither you nor the Assad family will remain in power.”

Lieberman is an ally — and an occasional sparring partner — of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Lieberman’s party merged with Netanyahu’s to form the ruling government coalition.

With his legal troubles apparently over, Lieberman is free to return to his cabinet post, which he vacated this year to face charges, while Netanyahu assumed the duties of foreign minister. During the investigation and trial, Lieberman continued to serve in the Israeli parliament, where he chairs the powerful foreign affairs and defense committee.

Netanyahu spoke with Lieberman on Wednesday, telling him, “I congratulate you on your unanimous acquittal and am pleased that you are returning to the government,” according to a statement from the prime minister’s office.

Shelly Yachimovich, head of the Labor Party and leader of the opposition, called Lieberman “a foreign minister who has damaged Israel” and urged Netanyahu not to allow him to return to the post.

Lieberman’s likely imminent return as foreign minister comes at a busy time, as Israel faces a long list of international challenges, including mending frosty relations with Turkey and pushing the Obama administration and its international partners to keep economic sanctions against Iran in place until that country decommissions its uranium centrifuges and opens its nuclear program up for inspections.

He would probably play a less central role in the ongoing peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. That job went to the justice minister, Tzipi Livni, and Yitzhak Molcho, a top Netanyahu adviser who is widely thought to be there in part to keep an eye on Livni.

“In reality, the Foreign Ministry does not run foreign policy because it is the prime minister who makes most of the decisions,” said Jonathan Rynhold, a political scientist at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. “I don’t think we will see a drastic change, because there is not a huge difference in substance between Netanyahu and Lieberman. Both accept partition [the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state], and both believe that it is probably not achievable.”

Rynhold added, “I think Lieberman will deal with other issues. His style will obviously be different to Netanyahu’s because he is more robust and plays to populist elements at home. Although he is tough, foreign diplomats do say that he is a man that you can do business with.”

Lieberman’s handpicked candidate in the Jerusalem mayoral race lost last month. A guilty verdict on Wednesday would probably have ended his political career.

After his acquittal, Lieberman headed from the courtroom to the Western Wall, where he donned a skullcap and shawl, had a quick picture taken and said a prayer of thanks.

Ruth Eglash contributed to this report.

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