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.
He denied all the allegations, and said that when he received information about the investigation from his ambassador, he immediately ripped it up and flushed it down the toilet because he knew it was wrong.
Lieberman has said in the past that he would resign if indicted. But he told his supporters that he was only referring to the more serious case against him.
Avraham Diskin, a political scientist at Hebrew University, said Lieberman would have to determine whether the indictment is hurting his party's electoral chances before deciding his future.
"He'll make a calculation. But every move will be coordinated with Bibi. We can be sure of that," he said, using Netanyahu's nickname.
Israeli law is unclear about whether Lieberman must resign. There is a legal precedent for politicians to step down when they face charges that compromise public trust in them.
Analysts said the pressure for him to step down will be great and Weinstein, or even the Supreme Court, could become involved if he refuses.
"What matters is not necessarily the formal severity of the crime but the potential harm in the public's faith in the government and whether the person can continue to project integrity," Moshe Negbi, Israel Radio's legal affairs commentator, said.
Court rulings have forced other Cabinet officials to resign. Facing the prospect of an indictment, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced his decision to step down in 2008 before formal corruption charges were filed against him. Olmert this year was cleared of most charges, but convicted of breach of trust.
The blunt-talking Lieberman has amassed power with support from immigrants from the Soviet Union and other Israelis drawn to his broadsides against Israeli Arabs and dovish groups, as well as the Palestinians and Western Europe.
Lieberman, who once worked as a bar bouncer, immigrated to Israel in 1978 from the former Soviet republic of Moldova.
Known for his Russian-accented monotone, he became a national figure in 1996 Netanyahu's chief of staff during his previous term as prime minister. He later quit the Likud and was elected to parliament in 1999 as head of Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home), a secular hawkish party he established to represent the more than 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
His party was the third largest in 2009 elections, drawing many votes from native Israelis as well as his traditional base.
Lieberman is known for inflammatory rhetoric that has at times agitated his partners in government. He has called for executing Israeli Arab lawmakers who met with leaders of the Palestinian militant group Hamas. As a lawmaker in 2008, he said Egypt's then-President Hosni Mubarak "can go to hell."
More recently, Lieberman pushed a series of legislative proposals that critics said were anti-Arab, including a failed attempt to require Israelis to sign a loyalty oath or have their citizenship revoked. He has also called for redrawing Israel's border to place Arab towns under Palestinian jurisdiction.
He also has embarrassed Netanyahu by expressing contrasting views to that of the government, including skepticism over the chances of reaching peace with the Palestinians. Lieberman has called Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas an "obstacle to peace" and urged his removal.
Earlier this week, he lashed out at the international community, saying many world leaders would sacrifice Israel to radical Islam just as Europe appeased the Nazis before World War II.
Associated Press writer Lauren E. Bohn contributed to this report.