JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's powerful foreign minister was charged Thursday with breach of trust for actions that allegedly compromised a criminal investigation into his business dealings, throwing the country's election campaign into disarray just weeks before the vote.
While Avigdor Lieberman was cleared of more serious allegations against him, the indictment sparked immediate calls for the controversial politician to step down. He declined to do so at a news conference but said he would consult with his lawyers on what to do next. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also rallied behind his close ally.
Lieberman denied any wrongdoing, calling the investigation against him a witch hunt.
"According to my legal counsel, I do not have to resign," Lieberman told cheering supporters at a campaign rally. "At the end of the day I will make a final decision together with my lawyers."
Lieberman, a native of Moldova, is head of Yisrael Beitenu, an ultranationalist party that is especially popular with fellow immigrants from the former Soviet Union. With a tough-talking message that has questioned the loyalty of Israel's Arab minority, criticized the Palestinians and confronted Israel's foreign critics, he has become an influential voice in Israeli politics even while sometimes alienating Israel's allies.
Yisrael Beitenu and Netanyahu's Likud Party recently joined forces and are running together on a joint list in the Jan. 22 parliamentary elections. Opinion polls have predicted they would form the largest bloc in parliament and lead a new coalition government.
But Thursday's decision threatened to become a distraction during the campaign. Three leading opposition politicians all called for his dismissal.
Lieberman gave no timeframe for deciding on his political future but said he would consider whether the indictment was harming support for his party in the election.
Lieberman's departure could have negative consequences for Netanyahu. Lieberman is Yisrael Beitenu's founder and main attraction to voters. If he were forced to step aside, Netanyahu would be stuck with a list of leftovers with little appeal to the general public.
Perhaps with this in mind, Netanyahu appeared to come to Lieberman's defense. In a statement, Netanyahu congratulated Lieberman for fending off the "main accusations" and said he was entitled to his day in court.
"I believe in the Israeli justice system and I respect it. The right it gives every citizen in Israel to defend himself is extended to Minister Lieberman and I hope he proves his innocence in the one issue remaining," Netanyahu said.
Thursday's decision was a reversal for Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, who last year notified Lieberman that he intended to indict him on charges that included fraud and money laundering.
Prosecutors have long suspected that Lieberman illicitly received millions of dollars from businessmen and laundered the cash through straw companies in eastern Europe while he was a lawmaker and Cabinet minister. In his decision Thursday, Weinstein said the case was not strong enough.
"I am convinced that there is no reasonable chance of a conviction in the offenses Lieberman is suspected of and that the case should be closed," Weinstein wrote.
Instead, Lieberman was charged with the lesser offense of receiving official material from the investigation against him from the former Israeli ambassador to Belarus, Zeev Ben-Aryeh, who reached a plea bargain in the case earlier this year.
The envoy had received the documents from the foreign ministry, which sought additional information on Lieberman from Belarus authorities.
At his news conference, Lieberman described the investigation as a witch hunt that stretched back as far as 1996, when he worked as an aide to Netanyahu.