Israel’s combative foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, unexpectedly resigned on Friday after being indicted on corruption charges, throwing the country’s political system into uncertainty just five weeks before a general election.
His resignation, a day after the attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, charged him with fraud and breach of trust, contradicted Mr Lieberman’s initial declarations that he would remain in office.
Despite opposition calls for him to go, the charges had not been expected to lead to his departure because more serious allegations against him, including bribery and money laundering, had been dismissed.
However, in a statement, Mr Lieberman said he was stepping aside to enable him to clear his name even though he was not legally obliged to resign.
“Even though I know I did not commit any crime… I decided to resign from my post as foreign minister and deputy prime minister and remove my immunity,” he said. “Following 16 years of investigations against me, I will now be able to end this matter quickly and without delays, and finally clear my name.”
It is not clear if Mr Lieberman’s case will be concluded before the election on January 22, in which his Likud Beiteinu bloc is expected to remain the largest grouping and be returned to power.
But Israeli media, citing party officials, said he will remain on the candidates’ list and will likely contest the election. Prime Minister Binjamin Netanyahu will take over as acting foreign minister until polling day, Reuters reported.
Mr Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party forged a formal pact with Mr Netanyahu’s Likud in October in a move commentators saw as boosting their electoral chances and bolstering the foreign minister’s political strength.
The charges against Mr Lieberman relate to his handling of privileged information passed to him by Israel’s ambassador to Belarus in 2008.
The document contained a request by Israeli investigators for assistance in a criminal probe into his business dealings abroad. Mr Lieberman flushed it down the toilet and later twice promoted the ambassador, Ben Aryeh.
He had been the subject of a long investigation over complex allegations that he set up a network of shell companies. The attorney general dismissed the charges, arguing that a conviction was unlikely, but indicted him over his conduct with Mr Aryeh.
Born in Moldova during Soviet times, Mr Lieberman — who once worked as night-club bouncer — has gained international notoriety for brazenly undiplomatic statements and hard-line stances on Arabs and Palestinians that have often drawn accusations of racism.
He has called for “loyalty tests” for Israel’s Arab minority and once advocated transferring Arab-populated areas to a Palestinian state in exchange for Jewish settlements in the West Bank becoming part of Israel.
This week, he provoked controversy by comparing European criticism of Israeli settlement plans to the allied failure to prevent the Holocaust during the Second World War. He also accused European foreign ministers of appeasing the Islamist militant group Hamas and of regarding Israel’s destruction as “a given”.
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