Verdict due in fraud trial of Israel's Lieberman

An Israeli court will deliver Wednesday its verdict in the trial of former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman on charges of fraud and breach of trust.

The ruling at the Jerusalem Magistrates Court will have an immediate impact on the political career of a man who holds a key position in Israel's ruling coalition.

If acquitted, the nightclub bouncer-turned politician will be able to return to his former cabinet post within days, assuming the attorney general does not appeal.

But if he is convicted and found morally unfit to hold office, he would be stripped of all public office and have to surrender his seat in parliament.

The stocky 55-year-old is accused of rewarding diplomat Zeev Ben Aryeh with an ambassadorial posting in Latvia after he tipped him off about a police probe into his affairs.

Lieberman resigned his post as foreign minister in December when it became clear he would be put on trial over then seeking to reward Ben Aryeh.

But he is still a member of parliament, where he chairs the high-profile committee on foreign affairs and defence, and heads the hardline Yisrael Beitenu party.

Wednesday's verdict could go one of several directions, all of which will have an impact on the ruling coalition but Lieberman can appeal any conviction.

Verdict could go several ways

If he is acquitted and Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein choses not to appeal, Lieberman could return immediately to his former post at the foreign ministry, which has been empty for the past 10 months.

But if he is convicted, the full extent of the verdict will not be known until sentencing in several week's time, when the court will have to decide whether the offence includes a finding of "moral turpitude".

If the guilty verdict does not include such a finding, and if he is not sentenced to time behind bars, Lieberman will be legally able to return to the cabinet.

Even if he is handed a prison sentence, he could return to government after completing the term.

But it would mean reneging on a pledge he made in January to retire from politics if convicted.

If, however, the conviction does include a finding of moral turpitude, he will be forced to resign from current Knesset, or parliament.

If the court also hands him a jail sentence of more than three months, he will be barred from politics for seven years.

But, as long as there is no jail term attached to a moral turpitude finding, Lieberman could still remain a minister, despite having to resign from parliament.

An unfavourable court ruling would also have implications for Yisrael Beitenu party which joined a coalition with Netanyahu's Likud a year ago.

The alliance holds a narrow majority of 31 seats within the 120-member parliament.

"If he resigns from the Knesset, he will leave behind a faction of 10 (MPs)... which will be like a body without a head," wrote political analyst Yossi Verter in Haaretz newspaper.

"He will also leave behind a prestigious position as chairman of the foreign affairs and defence committee and a coveted portfolio - as well as a prime minister who, for the first time in years, will not be subject to Lieberman's intimidation."

An outspoken hardliner who has been investigated by police several times since 1996, Lieberman denies the charges against him.

Taking the stand in May, Lieberman admitted Ben Aryeh had indeed given him papers but dismissed them as "not useful" and said he had ripped them up and flushed them down the toilet.

Born in Moldova, Lieberman immigrated to Israel in 1978 at the age of 20.

He read social sciences at Jerusalem's Hebrew University then served as a corporal in the army before beginning to climb the political ladder of the nationalist right.

For years he was a loyal member of the long-dominant Likud, rising through the ranks to become Netanyahu's chief-of-staff during his first term from 1996-1999.

He founded Yisrael Beitenu in 1999 aimed at capturing the votes of the swelling Soviet immigrant community.