Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein has decided against postponing Tuesday’s presidential election, despite the sudden withdrawal Saturday of Labor MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer from the race due to allegations of financial impropriety — the latest casualty in what has been a scandal-laden race.
After consulting with the Knesset’s legal adviser, Eyal Yinon, and other officials, Edelstein announced on Sunday afternoon that the vote would take place as planned. Edelstein faced some pressure to delay the vote from, among others, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“The harsh atmosphere that continues to surround the presidential race stirs up dissatisfaction with the process and casts a heavy shadow on the candidates and on the Knesset,” Edelstein said after announcing his decision.
“The ‘first citizen’ has to be the ‘first citizen’ in integrity, trustworthiness and morality, and to reach the position of president in the most honest and guileless way possible,” he continued.
“Unfortunately, it cannot be denied that in the current atmosphere, the upcoming presidential elections will be devoid of respectability. And yet, despite grave concerns over what the future holds, I have decided to keep the original date of the elections unchanged.”
Ben-Eliezer, a former IDF general and defense minister, announced he was withdrawing from the presidential race Saturday afternoon, less than 24 hours 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 were also investigating a separate $350,000 payment from a relative, and alleged improprieties relating to other large sums of money.
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. He continued to maintain his innocence.
Netanyahu was reported on Saturday to be looking into the possibility of postponing the elections in light of the latest developments. He started putting out feelers to members of his coalition Friday after the allegations against Ben-Eliezer first emerged.
Edelstein suggested Saturday evening that there was a “guiding hand” in a number of emerging scandals surrounding presidential candidates.
The Knesset speaker told Channel 10 it was unlikely that prominent politicians, who have served at the highest levels of government over the last 30 years, would 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 in the wake of allegations of sexual impropriety; the allegations were not substantiated.
The election for Israel’s president, set for Tuesday, is conducted by a secret ballot of Knesset members. The president serves a single, seven-year term.
The remaining candidates are former Supreme Court judge Dalia Dorner, MK Meir Sheetrit of the Kadima party, MK Reuven Rivlin of Likud, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Dan Shechtman and former Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik.
Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz told Israel Radio that despite the unfortunate circumstances, the vote must not be postponed. Finance Minister Yair Lapid also said Saturday that the elections should not be postponed.
And Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar called Edelstein to urge him to continue with the poll as scheduled. “Any attempt to delay the election will only increase the harm to the Knesset, the presidency and Israeli democracy,” he said.
On the other side of the spectrum, though, Kadima MKs Shaul Mofaz and Yisrael Hasson called for Edelstein to push off the vote.
Mofaz also said that the public elections should replace the current Knesset voting model for choosing the president.
Netanyahu has reluctantly put his support behind Likud favorite Rivlin, but he reportedly was not pleased with any of the candidates.
Meretz leader Zahava Gal-on said Saturday that her party would back former judge Dorner.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.