Labor MK Benjamin Ben-Eliezer withdrew his candidacy for president on Saturday, just days before the June 10 vote, after the police investigation into his connection to the Ashdod Port corruption scandal went public. His resignation was the culmination of the fall from grace for one of the presidential race's leading candidates.
When the Ashdod Port probe went public last month, investigators from the police and the Tax Authority seized computers and documents belonging to figures included in the investigation, including businessmen Jacky Ben-Zaken and Avraham Nanikashvili.
Nanikashvili’s documents revealed a loan made in May 2011 to Ben-Eliezer. Investigators sought to determine if there was a correlation between the timing of the loan and the purchase of Ben-Eliezer’s house in Jaffa. The information was passed along to attorney Liat Ben-Ari, the Tel Aviv district prosecutor for financial and tax matters. Early last week, the information was passed along to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein as well, who was tasked with deciding on whether to bring Ben-Eliezer in for questioning.
First, Nanikashvili was questioned, who stated that he lent the money to Ben-Eliezer to assist with purchasing an apartment in Jaffa. He also claimed that the loan was legal, and that he and Ben-Eliezer have known one another for many years. Aside from the $400,000 that Nanikiashvili loaned Ben-Eliezer, the MK received another $250,000 from a family member in 2012, in the form of a check that was cashed at a small check-cashing business.
Last Thursday, Maj. Gen. Mani Yitzhaki, head of the police’s investigations and intelligence division, State Prosecutor Shay Nitzan and Ben-Ari all met with Weinstein at his office. They decided to allow the police to call Ben-Eliezer in for questioning, to provide his version of the affair. While sitting across from investigators and learning of the suspicions against him, Ben-Eliezer began to fidget uncomfortably in his chair, chuckle ironically, and claim that the ordeal was an attempt by his rivals to sabotage his presidential candidacy.
Investigators told him that only they possessed this information, and that if he provided convincing explanations, he would exit the offices of the Lahav 433 unit (the Israeli equivalent of the FBI) without any further suspicion against him. Officials involved in the investigation stated that as opposed to Nanishkavili, Ben-Eliezer was not clear and concise in speaking with investigators. When asked about his ties with Nanishkavili, Ben-Eliezer claimed that he did not know him well: He knew his name, but had no real connection with him.
Ben-Eliezer’s statements did not correspond to the testimony provided by Nanishkavili. Investigation officials stated Saturday that they do not intend to cease questioning Ben-Eliezer after his withdrawal from the presidential race. Weinstein and other officials believe that they possess information that can lead to a much larger investigation into other various businessmen who might have transferred funds to Ben-Eliezer, possibly through family members.
Following his withdrawal from the race, however, it was decided to postpone the next questioning session, originally planned for Saturday night. The investigators decided to take more time to prepare themselves, while granting Ben-Eliezer more time to return to the questioning room with more coherent answers.
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