Police put a temporary lien on Knesset Member Benjamin Ben-Eliezer’s house in Jaffa recently to prevent the former defense minister from selling it or transferring its ownership. Temporary liens are imposed whenever police suspect that an asset was obtained by criminal means and that the owner may try to dispose of it, which would prevent the state from confiscating it should the owner be convicted of the alleged crimes.
The fact that a court accepted the police’s request to impose a temporary lien indicates that the suspicions against Ben-Eliezer are far from baseless. Indeed, police are soon expected to conclude their probe and they could recommend he be indicted for taking bribes.
Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein has been briefed several times about developments in the case, and legal sources said he was “shocked” by what police have uncovered so far. Ben-Eliezer bought the beachfront house in Jaffa three years ago for 9 million shekels ($2.63 million). Last month police opened an investigation against Ben-Eliezer on suspicion of taking bribes. He is suspected of having received millions of shekels, most of which went to pay for the house in Jaffa, from two businessmen — Abraham Nanikashvili and Roy Mussaffi. Police suspect that in exchange for this largesse, Ben-Eliezer helped the two men in their business affairs.
The investigation discovered that a few months ago, Ben-Eliezer submitted an affidavit on Nanikashvili’s behalf as part of a legal battle the businessman was fighting against the tax authorities over how much tax he owed. In the context of these proceedings, Nanikashvili sought to prove that the center of his life during the years in question was outside Israel, and therefore he owed less taxes than he would have if he were living here.
The evidence allegedly indicates that Nanikashvili gave Ben-Eliezer $400,000 that the two defined as a loan. The loan was also signed by a senior executive in Nanikashvili’s business empire. But when the investigation began, Ben-Eliezer had yet to repay this loan, and police suspect that it was never intended to be repaid, but was instead given as a bribe.
Ben-Eliezer’s associates reject this theory, arguing that since he received the money from Nanikashvili years before submitting the affidavit on his behalf, the idea that it was a bribe makes no sense.
Police also suspect Ben-Eliezer of receiving some 700,000 shekels from Mussaffi, a real estate magnate, in exchange for assisting his business ventures in Egypt – a country where Ben-Eliezer had a rich network of contacts before the 2011 revolution, back when Hosni Mubarak was still president. In 2012, when Ben-Eliezer was running for Knesset on the Labor Party ticket, Mussaffi also contributed to Labor’s campaign.
During the investigation, police also discovered some $600,000 in cash in a safety deposit box Ben-Eliezer maintained at a Jerusalem bank. But in the asset declaration he submitted to the Knesset speaker, Ben-Eliezer reported having a much smaller amount in his safety deposit box – about $50,000. Haaretz has discovered. When questioned by the police, Ben-Eliezer said the rest of the money belonged to one of his sons.
Ben-Eliezer has denied all the allegations against him. But Labor Party sources said they expect him to resign from the Knesset soon.
Over the past several weeks, the fraud squad has questioned many of Ben-Eliezer’s relatives, friends and staffers. Some were questioned under caution, including one close friend who was asked whether he helped the former minister cash checks.
Police first received important information related to this case more than a year ago, but neglected to follow it up properly. According to a source familiar with the details of the case, the Israel Money Laundering and Terror Financing Prohibition Authority gave the police’s investigations division information at that time indicating that Ben-Eliezer had received hundreds of thousands of dollars under suspicious circumstances. Nevertheless, this significant piece of information failed to spark an undercover investigation of the former minister.
Once police finish their investigation, the material will be transferred to the prosecution for a decision on whether to indict.
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