Image: Avigdor Lieberman
Alik Keplicz  /  AP
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman gestures during a press conference in Warsaw, Poland, Monday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 1/17/2012 11:43:32 AM ET 2012-01-17T16:43:32

Lawyers for Israel's controversial foreign minister launched a last-ditch bid Tuesday to fend off his indictment on corruption charges — a development that could topple Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government.

The attorney general's office began what is expected to be a two-day hearing to let Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman defend himself against allegations that he illicitly received money and laundered it through shell companies.

Prosecutors suspect Lieberman of using third-party accounts to receive more than $1.2 million illicitly while in public office, including from foreign businessmen with interests in Israel.

Lieberman and confidants are suspected of trying to cover up dealings "through methodical and protracted actions defrauding the public and national institutions," according to the prosecution.

He is also alleged to have tried to promote Israel's ambassador to Belarus after the envoy leaked him privileged information about a police investigation against him dating back to the 1990s.

Lieberman protests hearing
Lieberman, who has denied wrongdoing, was out of the country on an official trip and did not attend the hearing Tuesday.

A final decision on an indictment could take months.

Police first started investigating suspicions against Lieberman more than a decade ago, and in April, the attorney general's office announced that it was considering an indictment, pending this week's hearing.

Such hearings are routinely offered to senior officials to give them an opportunity to block an indictment.

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Lieberman, a contentious figure at home and abroad because of his bluntly delivered ultranationalist views, would be forced to resign if formally charged.

His indictment could jeopardize the government if he pulls his Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home) Party out of the coalition and robs Netanyahu of his parliamentary majority.

Political analysts have speculated that Netanyahu might take advantage of the situation and seek a snap election, hoping to bolster his party's standing at the expense of Lieberman — his main rival on the political right.

Racism claims
Lieberman has a strong following at home and his party is the third largest force in parliament. He has questioned the loyalties of Israel's 1.5 million Arab citizens, drawing accusations of racism but also a large electoral following beyond his Russian-speaking base.

He has proposed population swaps where Arab citizens of Israel would fall under Palestinian rule in exchange for Jewish settlements in the West Bank becoming part of Israel.

Story: Palestinians hand Netanyahu letter, Fayyad absent

The Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv reported Tuesday that U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were unwilling to meet Lieberman during a forthcoming visit to the United States because of his views but Lieberman's office has said that his schedule has still to be finalized.

U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations collapsed in 2010 after Netanyahu refused to renew a freeze on West Bank settlements taking up land the Palestinians want for a state. Jordan is hosting exploratory talks to try to restart those negotiations.

While Netanyahu has pledged to continue trying to secure an accord for Palestinian independence, Lieberman — himself a West Bank settler — has written off the talks as pointless.

Netanyahu has publicly supported Lieberman, saying in a statement he hoped the foreign minister would "prove his innocence" and "continue to make his public contribution."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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