- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2009

JERUSALEM (AP) - Israeli police interrogated the country’s new hardline foreign minister for more than seven hours on Thursday in connection with an ongoing bribery investigation.

Avigdor Lieberman was questioned at the headquarters of the national fraud squad in central Israel on allegations of receiving bribes, money laundering and breach of trust, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.

The questioning was connected to a long-standing investigation into Lieberman’s business dealings, Rosenfeld said. The foreign minister’s lawyer and daughter have also been questioned in the case. Lieberman denies any wrongdoing and says the probe is politically motivated.

“This investigation is going on for 13 years. In today’s investigation Lieberman cooperated and answered investigators’ questions,” Lieberman’s spokeswoman Irena Etinger said.

Lieberman took office this week as foreign minister. He has raised concerns around the world with statements seen as racist and his opposition to U.S.-backed peace talks over the past year.

He immediately sparked an uproar after taking office during a ceremony on Wednesday, saying he opposes concessions to Arab adversaries in exchange for peace and that “whoever wants peace needs to prepare for war.”

“Whoever thinks that concessions … will achieve something is wrong. He will bring pressures and more wars,” Lieberman told an audience that included some cringing Israeli diplomats. “What we have to explain to the world is that the list of priorities must change.”

As Israel’s face to the outside world, the brash, Moldovan-born Lieberman, who still speaks with a thick Russian accent, could have a difficult time changing minds about the government’s intentions.

In his speech, Lieberman harshly criticized the U.S.-led peace talks launched by Bush in Annapolis, Maryland in 2007, saying the agreement has no bearing.

“Annapolis has no bearing,” he said.

His comments drew condemnations from Palestinians, Arab countries and his predecessor, Tzipi Livni, who served as Israel’s chief peace negotiator while she was foreign minister.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Lieberman early Thursday, according to Lieberman spokeswoman Irena Etinger. The conversation was conducted in a “good atmosphere,” and the two agreed to meet as soon as possible, Etinger said. She would not say what issues were discussed.

State Department spokesman Robert Wood confirmed the call. When asked about Lieberman’s comments, Wood reiterated the American commitment to a two-state solution.

“Our position is well known by all of the players in the Israeli government,” Wood said. “Certainly Foreign Minister Lieberman is well aware of what our position is.”

Lieberman has had trouble with the law before. Police have questioned him several times throughout his decade-long political career, though none of the allegations have stuck.

Earlier this year, Lieberman’s daughter, his lawyer and five other confidants were detained in the current bribery investigation, in which Lieberman is accused of funneling illicit funds through fictitious accounts under the names of his daughter and lawyer.

The current case is complicated because the government’s new minister for internal security, which overseas the police, belongs to Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. Lieberman attended Wednesday’s ceremony in which Yitzhak Aharonovitch took office. Aharonovitch has instructed the police commissioner not to inform him of details pertaining to the investigation of elected officials, including his own party chairman.

Lieberman, 50, who once worked as a bar bouncer, immigrated to Israel in 1978. He became active in the hawkish Likud Party while studying at Hebrew University in the 1980s, earning a reputation as a powerful behind-the-scenes player.

He rose to prominence as the engineer of Benjamin Netanyahu’s razor-thin 1996 election victory over Nobel peace laureate Shimon Peres, and later became Netanyahu’s chief of staff.

Lieberman, who lives in the West Bank settlement of Nokdim, later quit Likud and was elected to parliament in 1999 as head of Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home), a party he established to represent the more than 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Lieberman’s party surged in this year’s election, growing to become the third-largest faction in the Israeli parliament. It gained popularity behind a campaign targeting the country’s Arab minority and threatening to redraw Israel’s borders by pushing areas with heavy concentrations of Arabs outside the country and under Palestinian jurisdiction.

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