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Middle East

Lieberman says undecided on resignation after fraud charge

Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman waits for the arrival of European Union's Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton to their meeting in Jerusalem in this August 29, 2011 file photograph. bREUTERS/Baz Ratner/Files

JERUSALEM: Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Thursday he would confer with his lawyers before deciding if he should resign, after he was charged with fraud and breach of trust.

Barely five weeks before a snap election, Israel's attorney general charged Lieberman with fraud and breach of trust but dropped more serious allegations against him, triggering calls for the resignation of the foreign minister.

But Lieberman said he will fight the charges against him.

"At five this this evening (1500 GMT) we received the (prosecution) material," he told activists of his ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party at a pub in Tel Aviv, in remarks broadcast live by local radio and TV stations.

"My lawyers at at this time are studying the material. According to a legal opinion that they received I am not obliged to resign," he said.

Political considerations will also be taken into consideration, Lieberman said, with the clock ticking ahead of an election in which Yisrael Beitenu is running in alliance with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party.

"The final decision will be taken after we receive a legal opinion from our lawyers and also after considering the possible damage, or otherwise, to our voters," he said.

Sounding confident and ready for a fight, Lieberman said: "I asked my lawyers and I also asked the Knesset to remove my parliamentary immunity."

"I want this trial, and as quickly as possible."

Earlier attorney general Yehuda Weinstein announced the charge of fraud and breach of trust, but dropped more serious allegations.

"After examining the file, I have arrived at the conclusion that there is insufficient evidence to charge him in the first case and have decided to close it," Weinstein said in a statement.

But a prosecution for fraud and breach of trust, would go ahead, he added.

"I decided to proceed with a case against Lieberman for having suggested in December 2009 that the government name the former ambassador to Belarus to a post in another country, despite the fact that -- according to the evidence presented -- he knew that he did wrong in passing along secret information, including details of a police inquiry against Lieberman," he said.

The decision closes a case that included explosive allegations of fraud, money-laundering and witness tampering. Lieberman has always proclaimed his innocence of all the allegations against him.

While the closing of the main case against him is something of a victory for Lieberman, analysts said that the ultimate decision on whether he resigns might be forced by Netanyahu.

The alliance had been expected to win at least 38 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, far ahead of the opposition.

Netanyahu congratulated Lieberman after the attorney general's announcement.

"I hope that he proves his innocence on the one remaining matter," he said in a statement.

HaTnua, the party led by former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, called for Lieberman's resignation.

"HaTnua calls on the prime minister to act according to the legal norms observed in Israel under which ministers who have been indicted immediately resign from the government," it said.

The Labour party warned of "the danger to Israeli democracy if Lieberman does not resign" while the leftwing Meretz party said it will go to court in a bid to force him to step aside.

Weinstein made no specific recommendation on whether Lieberman should resign, and local media said the legal precedent was unclear.

Lieberman has faced several investigations since 1996 on a number of fraud and corruption allegations but has never been charged.

A Soviet-born former bouncer, he has courted controversy with his hardline stance on Israel's Arab minority, with critics accusing him of racism.

In 2001 he pleaded guilty to assaulting a Palestinian youth who had hit his son and has had regular verbal spars with Arab members of parliament.

 

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