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Lawyers for Israel's contentious foreign minister launched a last-ditch bid Tuesday to fend off his indictment on corruption charges _ a development that could destabilize Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government.

The attorney general's office began what is expected to be a two-day hearing to let Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman defend himself against allegations that he illicitly received money and laundered it through shell companies.

Lieberman, who has denied wrongdoing, was out of the country on an official trip and did not attend the hearing.

Tuesday's hearing lasted more than three hours. Another session is planned Wednesday.

A final decision on an indictment could take months. Police first started investigating suspicions against Lieberman more than a decade ago, and in April, the attorney general's office announced that it was considering an indictment, pending this week's hearing.

Such hearings are routinely offered to senior officials to give them an opportunity to block an indictment. Lieberman, a contentious figure at home and abroad because of his bluntly delivered ultranationalist views, would be forced to resign if formally charged.

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

Even he is forced to resign, it is not certain that his party would leave the coalition government. But robbed of its outspoken and charismatic leader, the party would be weakened and face the prospect of infighting.

Yisrael Beitenu is the second-largest party in the ruling coalition. If the party were to disintegrate or pull out of the government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would lose his parliamentary majority and likely be forced to call early elections.

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