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Liberman’s acquittal shakes Israeli politics

Having been acquitted, Foreign Minister-to-be Avigdor Liberman can go to work without a legal cloud over his head, turning him into the key player in Netanyahu's coalition.
Former Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (3rd R) is surrounded by members of the media as he leaves the Magistrate Court in Jerusalem, after he was acquitted in a corruption trial November 6, 2013. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed Lieberman back to government on Wednesday after the ultra-nationalist politician was acquitted of corruption charges. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun (JERUSALEM - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTX1523M

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heard about the full acquittal of former Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman while in an intimate meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry, at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem. The meeting began at 8:30 in the morning, and less than 40 minutes later, he heard the dramatic news from the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court. Kerry had the benefit of being in the room when Netanyahu called to congratulate his new-old foreign minister, who is returning to be a key player in the diplomatic process, as well.

It’s quite likely that at the next meeting between the two, Liberman will also be present in the room, and the Americans will have to get used to the presence of one of their least favorite people. The best thing for them to do is to try to repair their relations with the man who will soon return to the Foreign Ministry. They may yet be surprised, and end up benefiting from Liberman’s pragmatism.

The instinctive tendency is to assume that with Liberman in the Foreign Ministry, cleared of legal hassles, the diplomatic process is bound to blow up. But the reality is more complicated and may be surprising, just like the man himself: complicated and unpredictable.

That for the first time in his public career Liberman will be able to work without a legal cloud over his head, turns him into an interesting player in the political field. He can no longer claim a legal witch hunt, he’s free of dealing with investigations and indictments, and can concentrate solely on his political ambitions.

This is a defining moment for him. A time of big decisions and strategies. If he wants to contend for prime minister, he will soon have to approach the heart of the political-diplomatic center and to leave behind the role of international diplomatic fires' arsonist. Liberman, who proved his pragmatism with his plan for territorial exchange — an initiative to transfer sovereignty over populated areas from Israel to a Palestinian state — is getting a chance to create himself anew in the Israeli public.

One way or another, with his presence in the negotiations room or without it, Liberman is returning to be a key player in Netanyahu’s government, and he will have a central role in the advancement or the obstruction of the diplomatic process. While he is not expected to hinder Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni's continuing as Netanyahu’s representative in the negotiations room with the Palestinians, Liberman will be the one to determine the fate of the process behind the scenes. And this is true not just for this issue.

Liberman is returning to the government politically and publicly strengthened, and next to him Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett look like children. In reality, the chairman of Yisrael Beiteinu is the only person with whom the prime minister has a real balance of fear, which he has had for some time.

At the end of the day, even those who are revolted by his worldview and his public persona can’t ignore the absolute and reverberating acquittal of three judges, none of whom can be suspected of fondness for Liberman. And so, the chairman of Yisrael Beiteinu, who has worked under a legal cloud for the past 17 years, can be expected to enjoy public empathy in the near future, which will also be reflected in public opinion polls.

As opposed to those polls, which haven’t been taken yet, senior politicians have understood immediately that the centers of power and the delicate balance in the government are changing, and so after the announcement of the verdict they competed in sending hugs and congratulations to the man who came in from the political cold.

Liberman is a renewed force in the political arena. He’s leaving behind months he’d rather forget: a joint failure for him and Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset elections, forced exile from the Foreign Ministry, and a humiliating defeat in the election for mayor of Jerusalem — all of these have dimmed his influence and his halo as an elite politician.

While the judges who acquitted Liberman gave Netanyahu stability in his coalition, with this stability comes far worse news: Liberman is returning to his government bolstered and more powerful than ever, and will thus be a real and immediate political threat to him, as the leader of the right. This might not happen immediately, if at all, but this potential exists, and Liberman has always been a man of grand plans — and the prime minister knows this as well.  

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