Israel's Tough Foreign Minister Resumes His Post

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JERUSALEM, Israel -- Israel's right wing got a boost Wednesday when Jerusalem Magistrate Court justices fully acquitted former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman of fraud charges.

Lieberman has long maintained that the Palestinian Authority government led by Mahmoud Abbas is "illegitimate" and there is no chance of reaching an agreement with them.

Ironically, the news came just as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived for peace talks.

Lieberman, an outspoken hardliner, has often ruffled feathers in diplomatic circles. But among more right-leaning Israelis, his hard-hitting, straightforward statements have earned him a great deal of respect.

In all likelihood, he will be resuming Israel's top diplomatic post following Wednesday's acquittal. 

"I don't want to dwell on this issue anymore," Lieberman told reporters as he left the court Wednesday morning. "I want to put this chapter behind me and focus on new challenges."

In the days preceding Wednesday's verdict, Lieberman said he received tremendous support from people who all along believed in his innocence. He thanked them all.

Shortly after the verdict was announced, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called to welcome him back to the government.

"I congratulate you on your unanimous acquittal and am pleased that you are returning to the government," Netanyahu told his former foreign minister. "We will continue to work together for the good of Israel." During his 11-month absence, Netanyahu did not appoint a replacement for him, choosing instead to serve as acting foreign minister.

Lieberman received similar support from numbers of cabinet ministers, among them Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar, Economics and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett and even Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, though they are often on opposing sides.

Not unexpectedly, left-wing parties in the opposition were not happy with the court's decision. Labor chairwoman and opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich, who had acused Lieberman of damaging the "public's trust in its elected officials and in democracy," called on the state attorney general to appeal the verdict.

Last December, MK Zehava Gal-On, who heads the ultra-leftwing Meretz party, petitioned the Supreme Court to order Netanyahu to fire him.

It's been a long pull for Lieberman, hounded for years by the attorney general's office. Though most of the charges were dropped for lack of evidence, AG Yehuda Weinstein issued an indictment last December on alleged fraud and breach of trust.

At the time, Lieberman asked the Knesset to lift his parliamentary immunity so he could confront the accusations without further delay. He also decided to step down as the nation's top diplomat to clear his name once and for all, promising to return if acquitted or leave the government if convicted.

"I know that I have done nothing wrong, but out of desire to put this matter behind me…I have decided to step down as foreign minister and deputy prime minister," Lieberman said at the time.

Now he's free to resume his duties at a time when the U.S. is reportedly getting ready to pressure Israel into what some consider to be concessions, such as returning to the indefensible pre-1967 armistice lines and re-dividing Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, Israeli media reported that Tuesday night's meeting between Israeli and Palestinian Authority negotiating teams ended in a shouting match, with the P.A. announcing that talks had collapsed, something they've been intimating all along.

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