So accustomed is Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to being under police investigation that he is known to constantly switch phone numbers and to remove the battery from his cell phone during private meetings. After 13 years of on-and-off probes into his private and political affairs, Lieberman has had good reason to believe that Israel's police were bugging his calls. And it certainly came as no surprise to the leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party when the police National Fraud Squad on Aug. 2 recommended that Lieberman be indicted for money-laundering, accepting bribes and obstruction of justice.
Israelis are familiar with the routine of what may happen next: the last Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, was forced to resign last year facing similar charges, although the process dragged on for many months after the police first made their recommendation.
In Lieberman's case, matters may be more swiftly resolved. It is now up to Israel's crusading Attorney General, Menachem Mazuz, to decide whether to charge Lieberman. Justice sources told TIME that a decision may be reached before December. The focus of the police probe centers on Lieberman's alleged ties to a string of shell companies, one of which was run by his 20-year-old daughter, now a multimillionaire. The liberal daily Haaretz reported that the police are curious about an estimated $3 million that the company headed by Lieberman's daughter received between 2004 and 2007 for "business consulting" from anonymous sources overseas.
Lieberman is confident that the police recommendation lacks merit. The hawkish Foreign Minister has always dismissed the probe as politically motivated. And voters, at least in the last elections, appear to concur: the former Moldovan nightclub bouncer has a large following among the 1 millionplus Israelis who emigrated from the former Soviet Union, although his support could wane as more and more allegations of wrongdoing are leaked by the police.
Lieberman told newsmen on Aug. 3 that if indicted, he will resign as Foreign Minister. "[If the Attorney General] decides to indict me after hearing me out, I will step down as Foreign Minister and within the next four or five months I will quit as a member of parliament," he said. But, the feisty Lieberman added, "I am convinced that next year, and in two years, too, I will still be Foreign Affairs Minister."
Lieberman's optimism may be ill-founded, because the knives will soon be out. As Foreign Minister, his frequent controversial and provocative statements have done little to project an image of moderation for his country. His Yisrael Beiteinu party is largely a one-man show, and if Lieberman is dragged down, expect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to start canvassing his remaining parliamentarians a largely unknown collection of hawks spiced up with a glamorous ex-supermodel and TV announcer in search of possible defectors to Likud. Indeed, keeping the backing of Yisrael Beiteinu's legislators may be the only way for Netanyahu to keep his four-month-old coalition in power, short of moving to share power with Kadima, the centrist opposition party led by Tzipi Livni.
Netanyahu is personally fond of his gruff, outspoken Foreign Minister, whose anti-Arab remarks have made him few friends in Washington and Europe and enemies throughout the Middle East. But already there are signs that the premier views Lieberman as a liability, especially during the current standoff between the White House and Netanyahu over the U.S.'s insistence that Israel freeze expansion of its illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The Palestinians describe Lieberman as nothing less than "an obstacle for peace." Last week, when a heavyweight U.S. team was in town, led by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Lieberman a settler himself chose to absent himself on a tour of Latin America to "counter Iranian influence."
If Lieberman goes, say political commentators, Netanyahu could chose to take over the Foreign Minister's portfolio himself, since Israel's Prime Minister always handles key negotiations with Washington and with the Arabs anyway. Lieberman is said to be pushing for a second option: that Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon holds his place until Lieberman shakes off the uproar over a possible criminal indictment. That may not be so easy. Police told the Israel press that they have solid evidence against the Foreign Minister. Earlier, Israelis were willing to believe that the political élite were singling out Lieberman the outsider who speaks Russian-accented Hebrew for harassment. But after seeing Olmert toppled by similar charges, and their former President disgraced over a rape scandal, there is growing intolerance in Israel for even the hint of sleaze. Lieberman, guilty or not, may fall victim to this renewed zeal for clean government.
With reporting by Aaron J. Klein/Tel Aviv