- Associated Press - Thursday, April 14, 2011

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s attorney general announced Wednesday that he plans to indict Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on corruption charges but will allow him a standard final hearing before a charge sheet is issued.

If Mr. Lieberman is indicted, he likely would be forced to resign, a move that would badly shake the coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, possibly force an election and put already stalled Israel-Palestinian peace efforts off for many months.

Mr. Lieberman denied the allegations.

Mr. Lieberman, a hard-line member of Mr. Netanyahu’s Cabinet, has been under investigation on a variety of charges for many years. He has complained bitterly that the cloud of investigation was hanging over him as a political weapon to reduce his effectiveness.

Mr. Lieberman’s party was holding a convention in Jerusalem as Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein released his statement at nightfall Wednesday. Mr. Lieberman was about to deliver his speech when he was informed of the statement. He delayed his remarks.

At the end of a half-hour speech about Israeli domestic and foreign policy, Mr. Lieberman briefly referred to the indictment.

“I know and you know that I always acted in accordance with the law, and there is no reason for worry,” Mr. Lieberman said. “After 15 years, I finally will have an opportunity to prove that I acted lawfully.”

Mr. Weinstein’s statement said Mr. Lieberman would be indicted on charges of breach of trust, aggravated fraud, money laundering and harassing a witness.

It said the charges involved “control of companies where funds were transferred in the millions of dollars.”

Mr. Lieberman is suspected of illicitly receiving money and laundering it through shell companies.

The breach of trust suspicion refers to the case of a former Israeli ambassador to Belarus who is said to have shown him secret documents from the investigation against him.

Mr. Lieberman would not be charged with bribery, as police recommended 18 months ago.

Israeli legal expert Moshe Negbi said the money-laundering charge carries a maximum 10-year prison term.

Under Israeli practice, a high official is given the opportunity to argue his case before the attorney general before an indictment is issued, but such a final hearing has yet to lead to the dropping of serious charges.

Under a precedent-setting Israeli Supreme Court ruling from the late 1990s, a Cabinet minister who is indicted for a crime must resign his post.

Mr. Lieberman heads the hard-line Yisrael Beitenu Party, dominated by immigrants from the former Soviet Union, like Mr. Lieberman himself.

In recent days, he has spoken out against letting a flareup of violence between Israel and Gaza die down. Instead, Mr. Lieberman said, Israel should launch an offensive to bring down the Gaza government of the Islamic militant Hamas.

Even if he is forced to resign, it is not certain that his party would leave Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition government, where it is the second-largest bloc, with 15 seats in Israel’s 120-member parliament. If the party does quit, that would remove Mr. Netanyahu’s majority and force him either to find a replacement party or call a new election.

Election campaigns in Israel run at least six months, and the process of putting together a new coalition government can drag on for several weeks after that.

During that whole period, it would be unlikely that Israel’s government would be able to concentrate on peace moves with the Palestinians.

Mr. Netanyahu issued a statement late Wednesday calling Mr. Lieberman a “central figure” in his government. “I hope Avigdor Lieberman proves his innocence,” he said.

Israel’s leadership has been rocked by scandals in recent years. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert resigned under a cloud of several corruption cases against him, and his finance minister is serving a prison term for embezzling large amounts of money from a labor union.

Also, a former president of Israel has been sentenced to a prison term after a rape conviction.