The Curse of the Israeli Presidency

The race to become Israel’s 10th president is reminiscent of the 2013 farce to appoint a new chief at the Bank of Israel. What’s going on?

In the beginning there were seven. All wealthy, all experienced, all far from naïve. Men and women of substance. Men and women of means. Two women and five men set off separately down the same path, all seeking the same treasure: The greatest (but, alas, most inconsequential) prize imaginable in their land.

All started Israel’s presidential race with the same basic belief – that they were the most worthy, most decorated, most presidential in all the land; the perfect heirs to the Israeli Willy Wonka, Shimon Peres (aka “the Old Hand”).

But alas! Little did our protagonists know that a quest for treasure always takes a painful toll! And that not all would make it to the finishing line: Not Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, the favorite; not even Silvan Shalom.

And what, do you imagine, happened so that, overnight, they fell from favorites to almost-unanimously condemned? Sit down by the fire, dear reader, and let me spin you a tale.

Click here to read about the five candidates in the presidential election.

No one expected the Israeli inquisition

“The bastards changed the rules.” This, S.Y. Agnon’s famous lament, was without doubt the sentiment shared by many of Israel’s leading politicians last weekend, as presidential candidate (and former deputy prime minister) Ben-Eliezer dropped out of the race – only four days before its conclusion – after being questioned by police on suspicion of corruption.

To say that Ben-Eliezer’s withdrawal from the race was akin to an earthquake might turn out to be a gross understatement. In the future, his failed candidacy might be seen as a crucial turning point, a twist in the struggle for accountability in Israeli politics. A moment where the relationship between the Israeli public and its politicians changed.

It began a few months ago as an online campaign led by attorney and former political insider Eldad Yaniv, to shine a light on the unethical conduct of one of Israel’s most powerful and most experienced politicians. However, it had become a rampaging snowball of social media outrage over the past few weeks, as details of Ben-Eliezer’s excursions to London casinos and questions regarding how he was able to finance his 9 million shekel ($2.6 million) penthouse in Jaffa decreased his chances of becoming president.

Ben-Eliezer unsuccessfully attempted to take down an online column Yaniv wrote on the Walla! news site about the allegedly shady capital that financed his penthouse. (The column was removed from the site, but went viral on Facebook following a social media campaign by some of Israel’s leading journalists.) And the allegations came back to kill his presidential hopes.

Last Friday – after weeks of being dogged by both online users and the Israeli press – he was interrogated under warning, on suspicion of illegally receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from businessman Avraham Nanikashvili (currently linked to the Ashdod Port corruption scandal), which were possibly used to finance part of said Jaffa penthouse.

But wait. Ben-Eliezer wasn’t the first to drop out of the presidential race. He was preceded by Energy and Water Resources Minister Silvan Shalom, who was seen as a frontrunner when he (unofficially) started campaigning earlier this year, only to bow out in disgrace following allegations that he sexually assaulted a former employee 15 years ago. The police case against Shalom was dropped last month, but his presidential aspirations were kaput by then.

You could call it The Curse of the Israeli Presidency. Like the naughty children in Roald Dahl’s classic “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” the candidates seem to be dropping one by one.

Ben-Eliezer and Shalom would have probably been fine if they hadn’t made the attempt to succeed Peres. Ben-Eliezer would have continued to be one of Israeli politics’ chief wheelers and dealers, and Shalom could have kept his good name. But both decided to seek higher office, and today this means relentless public scrutiny – the kind that doesn’t favor candidates with skeletons to hide.

Now, with the vote for Israel’s presidency commencing at 11 A.M. Tuesday, the race is seen as a farce that might even dwarf last year’s cursed race for the governorship of the Bank of Israel – a travesty that gained international notoriety and claimed the public lives of Jacob Frenkel, Mario Blejer and Leo Leiderman.

The two farcical races, of course, are linked. In both cases, candidates who were seen as shoo-ins were forced to drop out in shame, after skeletons, ghosts and embarrassing and/or criminal incidents from their past were unearthed. In both cases, it was the public (via social media) and the press that forced leading candidates to withdraw. In both cases, the candidates themselves reacted with complete and utter shock.

In short, no one expected the Israeli inquisition – least of all Israel’s leading politicians. Ben-Eliezer, for instance, announced his purchase of the Jaffa penthouse very publicly in 2013, probably without pondering that people might ask how a lifelong civil servant with a government paycheck could afford such a luxurious abode.

But what makes the Ben-Eliezer scandal so important isn’t the fate of the politician himself (although that, too, bears some influence on Israel’s political system, seeing as Ben-Eliezer has been a permanent fixture within it for many years), but the reaction to it.

Dalia Itzik, the presidential hopeful propelled into a leading position following Ben-Eliezer’s departure, was quick to declare her assets following his withdrawal. She had good reason to be scared. In the days prior to Ben-Eliezer’s resignation, the press (and, following that, users on social media) started probing her financial situation after she left the Knesset 18 months ago. Questions were raised about her six-figure income in the private sector, her close relations with prominent business tycoons, her (previously unreported) 4.5 million shekel luxury apartment in central Tel Aviv.

On Sunday Itzik published a financial disclosure, admitting that she had a third apartment in her possession, bringing the total value of her real-estate assets to 7.5 million shekels.

Most of the other presidential candidates – Reuven Rivlin, Dalia Dorner and Dan Shechtman – followed in Itzik’s footsteps and published detailed statements on their financial assets. The only one who refused was former finance minister Meir Sheetrit. If before his refusal Sheetrit had only a slim chance of becoming president, his chances are nonexistent right now.

Judging from the hurried and panicked response to Ben-Eliezer’s scandal, it seems Israeli politics is turning a new chapter. After years of resisting full financial disclosure (MK Shelly Yacimovich’s bill obligating MKs to release full financial statements has been continuously defeated in the Knesset in recent years), of buying luxury apartments without explaining where the money came from, and cozying up to business tycoons, Israeli politicians are getting a brush with accountability – and they’re afraid. In the days after Ben-Eliezer, full financial transparency might be forced upon you if you don’t submit to it yourself – especially if you want to be president.

And if the great Roald Dahl was alive (and Israeli), he might written something like this:

And who else, you might wonder, will be next to suffer a fate so cruel? Well, for that, dear kids, there’s a new and frightful rule. If you intend to run for president of Israel with skeletons in your closet – then you can bet, my dear, that you are bound to become a target!

Benjamin (Fuad) Ben-Eliezer at a Labor faction meeting.
Olivier Fitoussi