Lieberman's Lucky Break?

Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation—or “resignation,” since he has not taken his name off the Likud-Beiteinu list for the upcoming elections, and seems to be angling for a quick plea bargain—comes with a familiar rhetoric, which is the sad secret of his success and of the Israeli right’s more generally. If he is not actually convicted, I fear this whole episode will do him more good than harm.

Last night, Lieberman began playing jujitsu with the charges in prime time. He has been, he told an audience assembled to light Hanukkah candles (including throngs of reporters), the subject of rolling investigations for 16 years. Imagine: 16 years! And why? He didn’t condescend to say, so obvious was the answer. Because he has been the teller of unvarnished truths, the tough survivor who, just because of his otherness, has always been under threat of being taken down.

He doesn’t really have to resign, he added, so trivial and baseless are the charges against him. But today he said he is doing so to show voters what integrity looks like. And who is doing the persecuting? Vaguely, the legal community, with its relentless, nerdy prosecutors and supercilious judges, which everybody knows are elitist and leftist.

Just as the EU’s indictment of Israel for settlement expansion betrays the inherent anti-Semitism of Europe, and veils its reflexive persecution of Jews in legalese, his indictment for improprieties results from the sick contempt with which he is viewed by a corrupt establishment. He lives without illusions. So he is always on the verge of being destroyed.

To be clear, and pathos aside, the larger case against Lieberman is far more brazen than anything Ehud Olmert was charged with, and was dropped largely because of the way the case against Olmert fell apart. Prosecutors did not want to go into court yet again without witnesses who could testify directly against the defendant. Still, the circumstantial case against Lieberman involved much more money and was much more transparent: 

In a nutshell, Lieberman returned to the Knesset in 2004, and his 21-year-old daughter Michal was suddenly named the director of a consulting firm, which was actually an obvious means through which her father received payments from “foreign sources,” 11 million shekels in all. (The payments were listed as consulting fees, though the daughter was a student of literature at Hebrew University.) Lieberman also received more than 2 million shekels in salary, for two years of employment.

Worse, since 2006, when the investigation began, various witnesses in other countries were suspected of being suborned. Most recently, an accountant in Cyprus, who was to have testified for the prosecution, delivered an unexpected coup de grace to the prosecution’s case. The only thing the prosecution was left with was thin: an undisputed meeting in which an Israeli ambassador, who in the course of his official duties had got hold of secret information about Leiberman's case, shared this with Lieberman before he became Foreign Minister--and the ambassador was later promoted. If you can’t prove corruption, you try for obstruction of justice.

The real question, of course, is political. The charges have seriously raised the stakes. If over the next several days it appears clear that the case against Lieberman will stand up in court, this will unquestionably be a blow to the Likud, about which more in future posts. But if Lieberman gets the expedited process he’s demanded, and manages to work out a slap on the wrists for breach of trust—like Olmert, not a conviction for malfeasance, but for the appearance of malfeasance—we are going to hear much more about “16 years.” And rather than Lieberman becoming an embarrassment to Israel, most Israelis will consider him its embodiment.

From Open Zion, a feature of The Daily Beast, where I have a regular column.