JERUSALEM — Avigdor Lieberman, the former Israeli foreign minister who is among the nation’s most powerful and polarizing politicians, was acquitted Wednesday of corruption charges that have dogged him for more than a decade, a verdict with profound implications for Israel’s internal politics and its peace talks with the Palestinians.
Lieberman, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union who lives in a West Bank settlement, is a populist hard-liner who has alienated international diplomats with undiplomatic outbursts and has been both an important partner and a sometime rival of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Freed of the burden of a 17-year criminal investigation, he is expected to quickly return to the foreign minister’s post and is widely seen as a likely successor — or perhaps a challenger — to Netanyahu for leadership of Israel’s nationalist camp.
With Israel’s governing coalition already deeply fractured over ongoing negotiations with the Palestinians, Lieberman’s re-entry into the Cabinet will undoubtedly shake things up. While his stance on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not significantly different from the prime minister’s, he has in the past embarrassed Netanyahu by declaring, at inopportune times, that any agreement is decades away and that the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, is a “diplomatic terrorist” and no partner for peace.
“He has to decide whether he wants to be the leader of the right or if he wants to be one day prime minister,” said Shmuel Sandler, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv.
“This is a man who works long term: He’s not a tactician only, he’s a good strategist. I don’t know whether he will split away from Netanyahu and say, ‘I’m the replacement from outside,’ or whether he will say, ‘OK, I’ll try and support Netanyahu and one day be his successor, ” Sandler added.
Although staunchly secular, Lieberman, 55, went from the court in Jerusalem on Wednesday morning to the Western Wall, where he donned a skullcap and prayer shawl.
“This chapter is behind me,” he said outside the courtroom. “I’m focusing on the challenges that await us — and there are plenty of challenges.”
Politicians from many parties rushed to offer their congratulations, with Netanyahu calling to say, “I am pleased that you are returning to the government,” according to a statement from the prime minister’s office.
Netanyahu did not specify when Lieberman might be reappointed foreign minister, a job that has been left open since his indictment in December, but Israeli officials said that the required Cabinet and parliamentary approval were likely to happen Sunday and Monday.
The corruption case against Lieberman began with sweeping accusations that he had received millions of dollars from international tycoons with business interests in Israel through companies formally led by relatives or friends.
But the indictment filed against him in December was narrow, focusing on Lieberman’s support for a new post for an ambassador who had improperly slipped him confidential information regarding the criminal investigation.
The judges ruled Wednesday that Lieberman “did indeed behave in an inappropriate manner” by not disclosing the information given to him by the ambassador, but said that did not “indicate a conflict of interests of the degree of severity claimed in the accusation.”
The ambassador, Ze’ev Ben Aryeh, was convicted last year and sentenced to four months’ community service.
Mitchell Barak, a Jerusalem political consultant, said the lengthy and expensive investigation and prosecution would further erode the public’s trust in government.
“There are no winners in this case,” he said.
“But the biggest loser is the Israeli public that continues to ask when can they believe in the system again.”