Benizri: I've Been Persecuted for 8 Years for No Fault of My Own

Shas MK says won't resign from Knesset over conviction for bribery, conspiracy, breach of trust.

Hours after Shas MK Shlomo Benizri was convicted of bribery and other violations, the former minister on Tuesday said he would not resign and that he had been persecuted for years with no cause.

"I've been persecuted for eight years for no fault of my own. Where is the biggest bribery crime since the establishment of the state?" Benizri said, speaking at a press conference he held on Tuesday afternoon.

Benizri stated that he would not resign from the Knesset, since "there is still no judgment, nor has there been a ruling of moral turpitude." He acknowledged that it was a very tough day for himself and his family.

According to the former minister, "as one elected by the public I feel a duty to present my response to the court ruling, and not to hide myself away at home - keeping silent [on the matter would serve] as a confession."

Earlier in the day, the Jerusalem District Court convicted the Shas MK minister of accepting hundreds of thousands of shekels in bribes, breach of trust, and conspiracy to commit a crime.

Benizri continued, adding: "Representatives of the prosecution said this is one of the biggest bribery scandals Israel has ever seen - and this is the biggest lie that was told since the establishment of the state."

"I respect the court ruling and feel an obligation to speak out. As for the bribery charges, there was a draft of the indictment that also frightened me. Whoever reads the verdict has to wonder - where is the biggest bribe scandal in Israeli history?" the MK asked.

Benizri replied to questions regarding his political future by saying, "upon hearing the ruling I decided to suspend myself. I approached the Knesset's legal department to find out how this could be done, but was told there's no such thing - that I could either quit or continue serving as an MK."

"A suspension can only take place if the charge is of moral turpitude," he added. "Quitting now would mean putting an end to my political life. I refuse to do so. Let's wait for the court's sentence."

Benizri said he had not yet spoken to Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef about the ruling, but that he would meet Yosef in prayer on Wednesday morning.

Earlier Tuesday, a prosecution official said the state would request significant jail time for Benizri.

The official added that the prosecution would ask the Jerusalem court to rule that Benizri's crimes were crimes of moral turpitude, which would force him to resign from the Knesset.

Sources close to the Shas MK said he would appeal his conviction, and has no intention to resign at this stage, as he is not obligated to do so by law. This contradicts statements made by Shas leaders when Benizri was indicted two years ago, who said he would resign from the Knesset if convicted.

Rabbi Reuven Elbaz, his political and spiritual patron, was convicted of mediating in bribery and conspiracy to commit a crime.

The court ruled that Benizri received hundreds of thousands of shekels worth of services from contractor Moshe Sela, including the purchase of furniture, installation of an air-conditioning system, payments to a charity and renovations. In addition, Sela donated NIS 200,000 and $30,000 to a yeshiva.

Benizri was convicted of conspiring to commit a crime and obstruction of justice because he agreed with Sela to lie about his accepting perks. The two attempted to coordinate their stories with others involved.

Benizri, however, was acquitted of receiving money from Sela apparently in order to pay off a mortgage, or possibly some other form of regular assistance. He was also acquitted of receiving monthly payments of $200,000.

The former minister and Elbaz were accused of accepting money and favors from contractor Moshe Sela between 1996 and 2001, when Benizri served as health minister, deputy health minister and labor and welfare minister. At the time, Sela owned human resources companies that brought foreign workers into Israel.

Benizri was accused of influencing Employment Service decisions regarding foreign worker quota allocations to various contractors and of giving Sela valuable confidential information.

A certain percentage of Sela's profits was transferred to Elbaz and his Or Hahaim yeshiva network. The prosecution argued that Benizri knew that the transfer of funds would improve his standing with Elbaz and the Shas movement.

Sela turned state's witness after the allegations were made, and his testimony allowed prosecutors to turn their suspicions into an indictment against Benizri and Elbaz.

According to the charge sheet, Sela gave Benizri money monthly in 2000 and 2001 as well as $200,000 at the end of 2001, bought the apartment next door to Benizri and expanded his house, bought him electronics and furniture, and even promised him a silent partnership in a hotel on the Dead Sea coast.

In June 2001, Sela allegedly gave Elbaz NIS 1 million in checks - of which he put only NIS 200,000 in the yeshiva's bank account, fearing that the payments would generate suspicion. Sela cancelled the rest of the checks and gave Elbaz $190,000 in cash. After Benizri and Elbaz promised Sela they would help him win the tender for transporting foreign agricultural workers, Sela gave Elbaz another $400,000 and NIS 180,000.

Benizri was also accused of appointing Sela's associates to positions of public trust in his bureau. These included Sela's wife, Edna, who was appointed bureau chief when Benizri served as health minister.

Sela testified in court that he told the contractor who refurbished Benizri's home to lie, saying, "I told him, if they ask you who paid, say, 'Shlomo.'"