Updated Friday, December 14, 2012 at 07:01 AM
JERUSALEM — 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 weeks before the vote.
While Avigdor Lieberman was cleared of more serious accusations against him, the indictment sparked immediate calls for him to step down. He declined to do so at a news conference but said he would consult his lawyers on what to do next. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also rallied behind his ally.
Lieberman denied 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.
Lieberman, a native of Moldova, is head of Yisrael Beitenu, an ultranationalist party 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.
Yisrael Beitenu and Netanyahu’s Likud Party recently joined forces and are running together on a joint list in the Jan. 22 parliamentary elections. Polls have predicted they would form the largest bloc in Parliament and lead a new coalition government.
Netanyahu congratulated Lieberman for fending off the “main accusations” and said he was entitled to his day in court.
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 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 this year.
Sebastian Scheiner / The AP
Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieber-man is head of Yisrael Beitenu, a party that is popular with fellow Soviet immigrants.