Israeli MK Ben-Eliezer Drops Presidency Bid Over Graft Probe

With only days to go before June 10 presidential election, Labor MK drops candidacy following recent police investigation into alleged corruption.

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

Knesset member Benjamin (Fuad) Ben-Eliezer (Labor) withdrew his candidacy for president on Saturday, after being questioned by police on suspicion of corruption.

"In the final stretch of a long contest – in which I, in all humility, was the leading candidate – I was invited with only 20 minutes warning the police to be questioned about the sources of financing of my apartment," Ben-Eliezer said in a statement.

"I answered every question and even undertook to return with all the appropriate documentation and proof. Every shekel paid to purchase the apartment was transparent and known.

"I hope that the 'targeted assassination' that I have experienced will be the last affair in the current race for the presidency, as well as after. I wish much success to all the candidates."

Police interrogated Ben-Eliezer under warning on Friday on suspicion of illegally receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from a businessman linked to the Ashdod Port corruption affair. The businessman, Avraham Nanikashvili, was also interrogated on Friday.

The suspicion about payments by Nanikashvili to Ben-Eliezer and his family arose during an ongoing investigation into corruption at Ashdod Port. As a result, the tax authority, with the consent of Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, conducted a review of Ben-Eliezer's bank account, without his knowledge. The review led to the suspicion that Ben-Eliezer had not reported the payments to the Knesset.

The Knesset will elect the next president of Israel on June 10.

"I'm very sorry for 'Fuad' and very sorry about the type of campaign that has surrounded the presidency," leading candidate Reuven Rivlin said, following the announcement of Ben-Eliezer's withdrawal.

The biggest winner from his withdrawal may be Dalia Dorner, the former judge who is also in the race. Zahava Gal-On, who heads the Meretz party, announced her support for Dorner as candidate Saturday, as did all members of her part aside from MK Ilan Gilon.

Meanwhile Labor MK's were working to secure the party's endorsement for a new candidate. Labor Party Chairman Isaac Herzog is expected to meet with Dorner on Sunday. It is estimated that at least five members of Labor will support Derner, which puts the number of her supporters on Saturday evening at 12 at least.

Gal-On on Friday called on members of Meretz, and on Herzog, Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid, and the heads of the Arab and Ultra-Orthodox parties to join together in support of Dorner.

The news of the investigation into Ben-Eliezer's affairs caused great embarrassment in the Labor Party. Herzog said on Friday evening that he was surprised by the allegations.

"Nothing would be more populist than throwing Ben-Eliezer under the bus, but I don't act in that way" he said. "'Fuad' called me today after leaving the police interrogation. He described the situation, sounded calm and said he has the documentation needed. I told him I hope he gets out of it as soon as possible."