JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli far-right party leader Avigdor Lieberman, a key ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will hear on Wednesday whether or not he has been found guilty of corruption.
Lieberman’s ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party is so important to Netanyahu that he has kept open the post of foreign minister that Lieberman quit shortly before being indicted.
The party has grown into one of Israel’s largest political forces on the strength of votes from Lieberman’s fellow immigrants from former Soviet republics.
The widely read Ynet news Web site said a guilty verdict could spark a “political firestorm” because the party might be destabilized and leave a vacuum in Netanyahu’s ruling coalition.
Lieberman, a hardliner on peace talks with the Palestinians, denies charges of fraud and breach of trust stemming from allegations that he gave an Israeli diplomat an ambassador’s post in exchange for a tip-off about a police probe into his affairs.
Hoping that Lieberman will be acquitted, Netanyahu has had only a deputy foreign minister in the coalition government formed after January’s election.
Lieberman could in theory return to the cabinet even if he is found guilty, as long as he is not found morally unfit for public office or sentenced to jail.
A prison term would also force him to surrender his seat in parliament, where he currently chairs the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee.
Sentencing would be expected only in the coming weeks, which means that Wednesday’s verdict may not resolve the uncertainty. The attorney general could also appeal against the verdict.
Lieberman has been outspokenly skeptical of U.S.-backed peace talks with the Palestinians, which resumed recently after a three-year impasse, saying in February that he thought any permanent deal “impossible”.
Lieberman lives in a Jewish settlement built in the occupied West Bank where Palestinians seek a state, and has questioned the loyalties of Israel’s 1.5 million Arab citizens.
Last year, he irritated the European Union foreign policy chief by accusing the EU of failing to condemn the Islamist group Hamas for calling for Israel’s destruction, likening it to the failure to stop the Nazi genocide of European Jews during World War Two.
Lieberman is the latest in a string of Israeli politicians to face corruption charges in the past few years.
Ehud Olmert resigned as prime minister in 2008 after being indicted. He has since been acquitted of most of the charges against him.
Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Kevin Liffey