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Avigdor Lieberman’s Future

This morning, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation from the Knesset went into effect. Lieberman’s rise and sustained popularity have always puzzled both his domestic political opponents and foreign observers. In part this is because Lieberman’s political persona is one paradox after another. He is a fervent secular nationalist in an age when Israelis tend to be either one or the other. In this, he is a modern rightist much in the mold of Israel’s founding Laborite fathers–another contradiction. And he is most powerful and influential in post-election coalition forming; far less so in his actual duties as foreign minister and deputy prime minister.

That helps explain why they don’t understand him; it’s far easier to explain why his opponents don’t like him. Among those reasons is why he is resigning now: the cloud of potential scandal and accusations of corruption have followed Lieberman for the better part of a decade now. Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein has announced that Lieberman will be indicted on breach of trust charges–the same charges on which former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was convicted. Lieberman will not, however, be charged with the more serious corruption charges, likely bringing an end to a long ordeal. (Lieberman was under suspicion of profiting from a business registered in his daughter’s name while he served in Knesset.) The actual indictment will only be accusing Lieberman of the lesser, but still serious, charge that he promoted Israel’s ambassador to Belarus in exchange for information on an investigation on him by Belarus authorities.

As for Lieberman’s political future, there is one variable that will make a big difference. If he is charged with what Israeli authorities rather solemnly call “moral turpitude,” it greatly complicates the controversy for him. Haaretz explains:

If Lieberman is convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude after he is presumably elected to the next Knesset, he would have to resign immediately. If he were convicted and also sentenced to a prison term of three months or more, he would be prevented from running for the Knesset for seven years after completing his sentence.

However, if the Yisrael Beiteinu chairman is convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude before the January 22 election without being sentenced to jail, he would be able to run in the election for the next Knesset. He would also be forced to resign from the current Knesset….

Lieberman has a significant interest in signing a plea bargain if it includes agreements with the State Prosecutor’s Office on the issue of moral turpitude. According to the Basic Law on the Government (1992), a person cannot be appointed minister for seven years after completion of a sentence for an offense bearing moral turpitude. A plea bargain stating that Lieberman’s offenses do not constitute moral turpitude would allow him to return to the cabinet even if he were convicted.

What happens if Lieberman is banned from the Knesset for seven years? Lieberman’s party, prior to its recent merger with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, was first and foremost a party to represent the Russian immigrant community, which now numbers about 13 percent of Israel’s population (which helps explain how he is able to garner so many seats in the Knesset–15, currently). Lieberman’s success with Israel Beiteinu was something of a watershed in Israeli electoral politics. As I explained in a July 2011 piece for COMMENTARY, ethnic and minority groups rarely held so much clout; the Mizrahi community–Jews from Arab lands–eventually threw its lot in with Menachem Begin and the Likud to achieve maximum representation in the Knesset, rather than form a minority party itself.

But that was at a time when Israeli politics were dominated by two major parties–Labor and Likud. The fragmentation of Israeli party politics means Lieberman’s vote total actually makes him a kingmaker, since it is nearly impossible to form a coalition–and even more difficult to form a stable coalition–without him.

Had Lieberman’s party remained independent, a conviction on “moral turpitude” would be devastating for Israel Beiteinu. It would be less so now that the party’s Knesset slate has merged with Likud. Netanyahu needs those votes to stay with Likud to win the next election, and possibly future elections as well. But a threat to bolt the party from the Russians–something Lieberman has done before–would seem to be empty without Lieberman at the helm.

That’s because Lieberman provides leadership and cohesion to the group. The Russian immigrant community has never been able to successfully mobilize for elections without Lieberman. Natan Sharansky was considered a revolutionary among Russians and a hero in Israel, yet he was unable to lead a party of Russians with anything close to success. There are cultural reasons for this, and there are political reasons as well. Sharansky was just not a very good politician; Lieberman, on the other hand, is close to masterful at navigating the Israeli political scene. He is a tough-talking populist but a pragmatic legislator who knows how to advocate for his ethnic community while folding its story into the larger narrative of Israeli history.

But he is also brusque, undiplomatic, too dismissive of the Jewish Diaspora and can be as reckless on foreign policy (reportedly suggesting Israel consider toppling Mahmoud Abbas’s government, for example) as he is pragmatic on the home front. His domestic opponents, and a fair number of American Jews, want his political career to be finished by these charges. Lieberman can be a headache for Netanyahu as well, though he doesn’t want to push Lieberman’s constituents into the arms of the center-left–with whom they often vigorously agree on social and religious policy.

So it’s too early to tell if this will change everything or change nothing. But it’s doubtful it will be anywhere in between.

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