Popular … Avigdor Lieberman is the main attraction of the Yisrael Beitenu party. Photo: Reuters
JERUSALEM: Israel's Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has been charged with fraud and 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 voting.
Mr Lieberman was cleared of more serious allegations, but 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 his lawyers on what to do next.
The Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, rallied behind his close ally.
The Attorney-General, Yehuda Weinstein, decided to press charges against Mr Lieberman for receiving confidential information on a decade-long police investigation against him from the former ambassador to Belarus, who pleaded guilty to the charge in May, the Justice Ministry said.
But prosecutors would not press money laundering charges against Mr Lieberman, which they earlier labelled the central part of the investigation, Mr Weinstein said.
Mr Lieberman said the investigation against him was a witch hunt. ''According to my legal counsel, I do not have to resign,'' he told cheering supporters at a campaign rally. ''At the end of the day I will make a final decision together with my lawyers.''
While the Moldovan-born minister had previously said he would resign if indicted, political supporters including the Education Minister, Gideon Saar, said Mr Weinstein's decision focused on the most marginal charges and Mr Lieberman should remain in the government. Mr Netanyahu issued a statement congratulating Mr Lieberman on the reduced charges and expressed hope that he would be acquitted.
The Labour Party, among other political opponents, demanded Mr Lieberman resign, saying his ''behaviour, both from a criminal and moral viewpoint, endangers Israeli democracy''.
Mr Lieberman leads Yisrael Beitenu, an ultra-nationalist party that is especially popular with fellow immigrants from the former Soviet Union. With a message that has questioned the loyalty of Israel's Arab minority, criticised 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 Mr Netanyahu's Likud joined forces to run on a joint list in the January 22 parliamentary elections. 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 called for Mr Lieberman's dismissal.
Mr Lieberman gave no time frame for deciding on his future but said he would consider whether the indictment was harming support for his party.
His departure could have negative consequences for Mr Netanyahu. Mr Lieberman is Yisrael Beitenu's founder and main attraction to voters. If he were forced to step aside, Mr Netanyahu would be stuck with a list of leftovers with little public appeal.
Associated Press, Bloomberg