Drama rattles the presidential race as one of the heavyweight contenders, veteran Labor Party MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, drops out of the running with a few days left before the Knesset vote.
“Ben-Eliezer quits the race over suspicion of corruption,” reads Haaretz‘s headline. “Tangled up and quit,” writes Yedioth Ahronoth. Israel Hayom is less generous to the Labor Party candidate, running the headline, “Returning the honor” and saying “A race this dirty we haven’t yet had.”
According to Haaretz, police brought Ben-Eliezer in for questioning on Friday on suspicion that he received bribes worth hundreds of thousands of shekels from Israeli businessman Avraham Nanikashvili. Nanikashvili and Ben-Eliezer claim the funds were given to the MK as a legal loan in order to finance the latter’s luxury apartment in Jaffa.
“So I took a loan from a friend, what’s the problem?” Yedioth Ahronoth quotes Ben-Eliezer saying.
After facing police investigation, Ben-Eliezer, “with a heavy heart, anger and frustration, announced his resignation from the race,” Yedioth Ahronoth reports.
“The moment they dropped that bomb on me, I decided to quit in order to fight and struggle for my name,” he told the paper in an interview. “This was a targeted assassination [of character].”
Israel Hayom reports that in light of Ben-Eliezer’s dropping out of the race, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and a select committee will discuss Sunday the possibility of rescheduling the election which is set for Tuesday. The paper quotes Edelstein telling Channel 10 that he is suspicious about the sudden resignation of candidates in recent weeks amid scandals and that he suspects a greater plot.
“I am not naive enough to think that suddenly people who have been in public service for 30 years, and have served in the most senior positions, just in the last three weeks have all sorts of things fall upon them,” he is quoted saying. “Apparently there are some kind of guiding hands. I don’t know whose, but there are guiding hands.”
The pundits spare Ben-Eliezer little sympathy in any of the newspapers. In Haaretz, Yossi Verter remarks that “the race for this rather dull, symbolic job that lacks all authority continues to provide us with countless surprises and ongoing drama.”
“Sometimes it seems like a chapter out of ‘Alice in Wonderland,’” he says. With two former candidates out thanks to police investigations (Silvan Shalom was the first), it’s hard to tell how the cards will fall, he says. What’s clear, Verter says, is that the other candidates shed crocodile tears at Ben-Eliezer’s departure.
“And as they wiped away their tears and lamented Ben-Eliezer’s tragic fate, they have already made a rush for the votes – like birds of prey on an elephant’s corpse in the jungle,” he writes.
Dan Margalit writes in Israel Hayom that Ben-Eliezer’s departure is is a “welcome corruption purge,” scathingly rebuking the Labor Party MK for moral impropriety as a public official when it came to his financial dealings with Nanikashvili.
“A high-ranking elected official should never borrow money from someone like Avraham Nanikashvili, even if the businessman loans the money through legal means,” he says, noting that keeping the funds as a bribe would be “an even greater sin.”
“Maybe this was not really a loan, considering that Ben-Eliezer has allegedly yet to pay back the money — some three years after the purported transaction,” Margalit posits. “While there is no smoking gun that would point to a quid pro quo, such funds are tainted by their very nature, even if they were not used as bribe money but were simply handed to him in envelopes without expecting anything in return…. By accepting the money he may have violated other sections of the penal code and could face breach of trust and fraud charges.”
Political candidates should make sure they don’t have skeletons in the closet before they throw their hat in the ring, Nahum Barnea writes in Yedioth Ahronoth. “Fuad [Ben-Eliezer] claimed they assassinated him,” he writes. “Perhaps. What’s certain is that the public atmosphere vis-á-vis all of the politicians borrows its terms from the world of terrorism.”
Barnea says Ben-Eliezer’s votes in the Knesset will likely be dispersed among the remaining five candidates, but notes that there’s a “wave of hatred” on social media toward veteran politicians. “Seemingly this aids Professor [Dan] Shechtman and [former] justice [Dalia] Dorner, but only seemingly: the voters are members of Knesset, not responders on the Internet, and the vote is secret, behind a screen.”
If you look hard enough, there is other news in the papers on Sunday morning. Haaretz reports that Civil Administration officers refused to provide the government with a list of possible sanctions to levy against the Palestinian population. One of the officers got up in a meeting convened for that purpose and said that if the Civil Administration imposes sanctions on Palestinian citizens, it doesn’t have a right to exist, for its purpose is to assist that population.
Israel Hayom writes up snippets from Hillary Clinton’s new book in which she calls the Obama administration’s decision to demand a settlement freeze in 2010 a mistake. The paper also gushes over a New York Times editorial calling for skepticism and care when dealing with the Hamas government, noting that the group is committed to Israel’s destruction.