JERUSALEM (AP) — An Israeli court on Wednesday found former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman innocent of all charges in a graft trial, clearing the way for one of Israel's most powerful and polarizing figures to return to his post as the nation's top diplomat and raising his clout in a bitterly divided government.
The decision handed the 55-year-old Lieberman a resounding victory in a case that had threatened to derail his political career and reshape the makeup of the coalition government. Instead, he could return to the political arena stronger than ever.
"This chapter is behind me. And I am focusing on the challenges ahead, and there are plenty of challenges," the triumphant Lieberman said outside the courtroom after the verdict.
After leaving the court, the fiercely secular Lieberman donned a prayer shawl and skullcap and worshipped at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site. "It's a very good day," he told The Associated Press as he left the site.
Lieberman, an ally and sometime rival of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was forced to step down as foreign minister early this year to face the charges. Lieberman would not say whether he intends on returning to the job, but it appears to be only a matter of time.
Since a parliamentary election in January, Netanyahu has left the post vacant for Lieberman while awaiting a verdict. In the meantime, Lieberman was permitted to keep his seat in parliament.
Following the ruling, Netanyahu called Lieberman to congratulate him and said he was looking forward to Lieberman's "return to the government," according to a statement from the premier's office.
Lieberman, an immigrant from the former Soviet republic of Moldova, has long been dogged by allegations of corruption. This case was the first time he had been accused of criminal behavior.
He was charged with fraud and breach of trust for allegedly trying to advance the career of a former diplomat who relayed information to him about a separate criminal investigation into Lieberman's business dealings.
The court verdict said "the defendant acted improperly," but was not guilty of criminal activity. Prosecutor Michal Sibel-Darel said her office respected the decision and would study it before deciding whether to appeal.
Following the verdict, opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich said the Israeli public "is left with a corrupt man in a key senior position." She called on the attorney general to appeal and urged Netanyahu not to re-appoint Lieberman.
"It is impossible to shake the feeling that Lieberman succeeded in fooling the justice system in Israel and manipulating it," she said.
Lieberman gained political popularity through a hard-line stance that has appealed to nationalistic Israelis.
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 at times alienated Israel's allies while becoming an influential voice at home.
During his stint as foreign minister, he pushed a series of legislative proposals that critics said were discriminatory against Israel's Arab minority, including a failed attempt to require Israelis to sign a loyalty oath or have their citizenship revoked.
He also embarrassed Netanyahu by expressing contrary views to the government, including skepticism over the odds of reaching peace with the Palestinians.
Wednesday's decision coincided with a visit by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is in the region trying to promote faltering Israeli- Palestinian peace talks.
A longtime skeptic of the peace process, Lieberman is likely to become more outspoken in his criticism of the Palestinians following his acquittal.
Before the January election, Lieberman led his nationalist Yisrael Beitenu into a merger with Netanyahu's Likud Party. But the alliance, meant to solidify a victory by Israel's hardline bloc, backfired and the combined list fared poorly.
Lieberman is now considering whether to break up the merger. Israeli media said Yisrael Beitenu would likely hold a vote on the matter on Nov. 24.
Such a move could increase his influence since he could potentially rob Netanyahu of his parliamentary majority.
He might also pressure Netanyahu to shuffle the coalition to bring in hardline religious parties and get rid of the more moderate factions in the government — which would mean trouble for peace efforts.
"I am happy that Lieberman will return to the Foreign Ministry so we can cooperate," said Cabinet Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the religious nationalist party Jewish Home.
Lieberman rose to prominence as the engineer of Netanyahu's successful run for prime minister in 1996, and he later became Netanyahu's chief of staff. He is a powerful behind-the-scenes mover who lives in a West Bank settlement.
He created the Yisrael Beiteinu party in 1999 to represent the more than 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
But his standing has suffered, in part because much of his power base integrated so well into mainstream Israeli society over the years. He also was embarrassed last month when a close ally lost the mayoral race in Jerusalem. Lieberman had invested considerable time and effort promoting his candidate.