Labor Party MK Binyamin (Fuad) Ben-Eliezer formally dropped his bid for Israel’s presidency Saturday, three days before the election and a day after he was questioned by police for alleged financial impropriety.
“With a very heavy heart, I have made the decision to withdraw from the race for the presidency,” Ben Eliezer wrote in a Facebook post. “I have had my good name since the day I was born, and it is my intention to keep my name, honor and truth.”
Ben-Eliezer’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.
Ben-Eliezer, a former general and defense minister, was characteristically defiant in his statement Saturday, blasting a “smear campaign” against him. He said his decision to drop out of the race should not be read as an admission of guilt, and asserted that he would clear his name and had the documents to prove his innocence.
“From the minute that I declared my candidacy for the position, the slanderous smear campaign aggressively waged against me did not stop, this campaign with the sole goal of preventing me from running and serving as president of the state,” he said.
He added that while he would refrain from doing interviews with the media in the coming days in order not to disturb the elections, he hoped that his fate would prompt wider “self-examination,” leading to the end of “targeted killings” that he said had become a routine part of Israeli politics.
The allegations against Ben-Eliezer, 78, emerged earlier this week and Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein ordered police to open an investigation. 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.
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 was to be summoned for further questioning Saturday evening. He denied any wrongdoing.
Police are also investigating a separate $350,000 payment from a relative, and alleged improprieties relating to other large sums of money.
Labor Party Chairman and opposition leader Isaac Herzog said he respected Ben-Eliezer and his decision to withdraw from the race, and hoped “the truth will come to light.”
The Likud’s Reuven Rivlin, the favorite for the presidency, said in a statement that he felt “great sadness for [Ben-Eliezer] and […] the difficult environment surrounding these presidential elections,” while Hatnua candidate Meir Sheetrit blasted the current atmosphere surrounding the campaign, which he described as “unbecoming” of such a “central, important institution in Israel.”
Earlier Saturday, Labor party representatives, as well as fellow candidates Sheetrit, Dalia Itzik and Dalia Dorner, called for a speedy investigation and invoked Ben-Eliezer’s right to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
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 President Shimon Peres’s seven-year term ends on July 27.
While Friday’s allegations were the most serious and harmful to his campaign, they were not the first to emerge against Ben-Eliezer since he announced his candidacy.
In May, Channel 2 reported that Ben-Eliezer was a frequent guest of exclusive London casinos between 1999-2002, during which time he served as deputy prime minister, communications minister, housing minister and defense minister.
Ben-Eliezer initially denied the claims, but after he was presented with membership cards to the casinos, he acknowledged that he had been to the establishments, but only for dinner.
He was not the only candidate to succumb to scandal. Energy Minister Silvan Shalom chose not to contest the presidency after allegations of sexual impropriety surfaced in recent weeks; the allegations were not substantiated.
Ben-Eliezer was not the frontrunner for the post 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 Hatnua MK Sheetrit, another center-left candidate.