Israel’s controversial Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a key ally of the premier, resigned Friday after having been charged with breach of trust, barely five weeks ahead of general elections.
“I am not legally bound to submit my resignation… but I have decided to step down from my duties as foreign minister and deputy premier,” the ultra-nationalist leader said in a statement.
But Lieberman, 54, said he would fight the charges and could return to the political scene in time for the January 22 polls.
“I have taken this decision from the conviction that the citizens of Israel will be able to go to the polls after this problem has been resolved,” said the leader of the Yisrael Beitenu party, a member of the ruling coalition.
“That means the judiciary must give its verdict before the elections,” said Lieberman, who has long proclaimed his innocence of all charges.
“I will then be able to serve the citizens of Israel and form part of the next strong and unified leadership to face up to the security, political and economic challenges with which Israel is confronted,” he said.
“Having been the target of legal proceedings and (police) listening for the last 16 years, I plan to finish with this business without delay and clear my name once and for all,” he said, adding he lifted his parliamentary immunity.
On Thursday, after he was charged with fraud and breach of trust, Lieberman said he would confer with his lawyers before deciding if he should resign.
Israel’s attorney general charged him but dropped more serious allegations against Lieberman, whose party is running in alliance with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.
Thursday’s decision closes an episode that included explosive allegations of fraud, money-laundering and witness tampering.
The alliance between Yisrael Beitenu and the right-wing party of Netanyahu, who takes over the foreign ministry in the interim, had been expected to win at least 38 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, far ahead of the opposition.
Legal expert Moshe Negbi, speaking on Israeli radio, said Lieberman had no choice after a precedent was set more than 20 years ago when five supreme court judges ruled that a minister had to resign faced with similar charges.
“Lieberman has taken the right decision, the one he had to take, and we hope that he will have a quick trial,” said HaTnua, an opposition party led by former foreign minister Tzipi Livni.
On Thursday, Netanyahu congratulated Lieberman after the attorney general’s announcement. “I hope that he proves his innocence on the one remaining matter,” he said, while the opposition called for his resignation.
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, Lieberman pleaded guilty to assaulting a Palestinian youth who had hit his son and has had regular verbal spars with Arab members of parliament.
Immediately after taking office in 2009, Lieberman sparked criticism by saying the cabinet was not bound by the previous government’s decision at a US conference in November 2007 to revive peace negotiations with the Palestinians.