Labor Party MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer’s bid for the presidency seemed to have gone up in smoke Friday after police questioned him for nearly five hours on suspicion that he illegally received millions of shekels from various sources, using some of the money to purchase a luxury apartment home in Jaffa.
Police also investigated whether Ben-Eliezer, a former general and minister of defense, failed to file taxes on millions of shekels in his bank accounts.
Police officials said that investigators were highly unlikely to complete their work by Tuesday, when the 120 Knesset members are to cast their votes to elect the next president of Israel. Incumbent Shimon Peres’s seven-year term ends on July 27. Ben-Eliezer, 78, is one of six candidates for the job.
Ben-Eliezer was the Labor candidate for the post, and Labor leader Isaac Herzog said the party would convene at the start of the week to decide whether to withdraw its support. “He’s our candidate. But there’s been a development,” Herzog said, adding that he hoped the “clouds” over Ben-Eliezer’s head would clear and that he had “full faith in the investigating authorities.”
Ben-Eliezer was not the frontrunner for the post — Likud’s Reuven Rivlin is the favorite — but was considered to have a chance of making the second-round run-off between the two top candidates. (A Channel 10 poll Friday among the Israeli public, who have no say in the presidential election, gave Rivlin 35%, Nobel chemistry Laureate Dan Shechtman 24% and Ben-Eliezer just 6%; the poll was taken before news of the allegations against Ben-Eliezer.) Some analysts speculated that the derailment of Ben-Eliezer’s campaign might work to the advantage of another center-left candidate, Hatnua MK Meir Sheetrit.
Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein ordered police to investigate Ben-Eliezer after receiving information earlier this week regarding the latter’s allegedly improper dealings, Channel 2 reported. Weinstein reportedly agonized over the decision, knowing that if Ben-Eliezer were summoned, his presidential campaign would likely be over, but that if police only investigated after Tuesday’s vote, and Ben-Eliezer had been elected to the symbolic but highly prestigious post, the repercussions could be still more problematic.
Police suspect Ben-Eliezer may have acquired the funds necessary to purchase his apartment in Jaffa’s upscale Laura complex in exchange for providing Israeli businessman Abraham Nanikashvili with certain unspecified services. The apartment, which Ben-Eliezer bought two years ago, is worth close to NIS 9 million (a little over $2.5 million). Nanikashvili, who was also questioned Friday, acknowledged making a $400,000 loan to Ben-Eliezer in 2011, Channel 2 reported, and denied any wrongdoing. Ben-Eliezer, who initially denied receiving the money but then confirmed doing so, Channel 2 said, was questioned under caution and will be summoned again after the sabbath.
Ben-Eliezer, who denied any illegalities, said last week that he was facing a “witch-hunt” by unspecified rivals bent on destroying his candidacy. “I feel fine and everything is okay,” he said later Friday, insisting his candidacy was still alive. In a previous interview, he said he had used all of his and his wife’s money to purchase the home. Asked if he’d taken a mortgage, he joked that he was too old to qualify for one.
Energy Minister Silvan Shalom chose not to contest the presidency after allegations of sexual impropriety surfaced in recent weeks; the allegations were not substantiated.
Nanikashvili, whose net worth is estimated at nearly $1 billion, had recently been investigated for allegedly playing a role in a corruption scandal involving high ranking officials in the Israel Ports Company. Ben-Eliezer and Nanikashvili have been friends for 10 years, Channel 2 said.
Apart from the $400,000 payment, Ben-Eliezer was also questioned about some $350,000 which had been anonymously deposited in his account, Channel 2 reported. According to Ben-Eliezer, the funds had been given to him by his family members, though police have still not been able to trace the source of the deposit.
A spokesperson for Ben-Eliezer said the timing of the investigation, only four days before the presidential elections, was “odd.”
“Ben-Eliezer asks that the relevant parties complete the investigation as soon as possible so that the truth may be brought to the public’s knowledge,” the spokesperson added.
According to Ynet, a source close to Ben-Eliezer said the presidential candidate had been investigated over the matter in the past and had fully complied with police requests.
Israel’s next president will be picked from among six candidates by the 120 Knesset members in a confidential vote on June 10. Aside from Ben-Eliezer, the candidates are Rivlin of the Likud, Hatnua MK Sheetrit, former Supreme Court justice Dalia Dorner, former Knesset speaker Dalia Itzik, and Chemistry Nobel Prize laureate Shechtman.