President Shimon Peres offered his support for Labor Party MK Binyamin (Fuad) Ben-Eliezer in a phone call Saturday after the embattled MK withdrew from the presidential race, just three days before the elections, in light of a police investigation Friday into alleged financial improprieties.
Peres, whose presidential term ends on July 27, told Ben-Eliezer to stay strong in these “difficult and complicated days,” and the former candidate thanked the president for his kind words and the phone call.
Ben-Eliezer wrote on his Facebook page Saturday that he was quitting the race with a “very heavy heart,” criticizing the “slanderous smear campaign” he says was waged against him from the moment he announced his candidacy for the post.
The 120 MKs are to choose Peres’s successor on Tuesday in a secret ballot.
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein suggested Saturday evening that there was a “guiding hand” to all the emerging scandals surrounding presidential candidates.
Edelstein told Channel 10 Saturday it was impossible that prominent politicians, who have served at the highest levels of government over the last 30 years, could coincidentally be facing a rash of allegations precisely as the presidential race gathered pace.
“It would be naive to think that just in the last three weeks all these troubles befell them,” he said.
Last month, Energy Minister Silvan Shalom chose not to run for the presidency after allegations of sexual impropriety surfaced; the allegations were not substantiated.
A number of Israeli politicians and presidential candidates lamented on Saturday the way the presidential race has progressed under a cloud of scandal.
Kadima MK Shaul Mofaz called for the public to choose the president, rather than the current Knesset voting.
“It hurts me to see that involvement with the office of the presidency has gone from being about national values to a political battle that has gotten personal and ugly,” he said, according to Walla news portal.
Hatnua MK and presidential candidate Meir Sheetrit recalled the many years he had worked together with Ben-Eliezer in the Knesset and lamented that the race had gotten to a point that is “not befitting of an office that is important and central to the lives of the people and the state.”
Former Knesset speaker Dalia Itzik, another presidential candidate, echoed Sheetrit’s sentiments and said that “whoever is elected, the first task will be to strengthen public confidence in the office of the president.”
Labor MK Itzik Shmuli called on Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to explain the timing of the investigation, since Ben-Eliezer had purchased the house at the heart of the allegations against him over a year ago.
Labor party MK Eitan Cabel told Israel Radio that, with Ben-Eliezer out of the race, the party would convene a meeting Saturday night to discuss who it will back for president, but added there is a chance that it will not support anybody in particular.
Meanwhile, the Lahav 433 special investigative unit postponed its scheduled second session of questioning of Ben-Eliezer following a request from his lawyer and in light of his withdrawal from the race. The investigation had been set to resume Saturday evening.
The former general and defense minister’s bid for the presidency took its final hit Friday after police questioned him for nearly five hours, under caution, on suspicion that he illegally received millions of shekels from various sources, using some of the money to purchase his luxury apartment home in Jaffa.
Police suspect Ben-Eliezer may have acquired the funds necessary to purchase his apartment in the 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 initially denied receiving the money but then confirmed doing so, Channel 2 said.
Police are also investigating a separate $350,000 payment from a relative, and alleged improprieties relating to other large sums of money
Attorney General Weinstein reportedly agonized over the decision, knowing that if Ben-Eliezer were summoned for questioning, 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.