In his formal response to indictments for bribery, fraud, breach of trust, money-laundering and tax evasion, former Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer denied all charges and said his poor health had made him forget “entire incidents.”
The brief filed by his attorneys on Sunday, Jacob Weinroth and Amit Hadad, noted that in 2011, the ex-minister was in a coma for eight days, and ever since, “his health has deteriorated steadily.” Then, referring to him by his nickname, the brief added, “Fuad’s illnesses haven’t just harmed his body. He has also suffered significant cognitive deterioration. Fuad’s memory has been damaged and entire incidents have been forgotten.”
Specifically, the first of four charges against Ben-Eliezer, a former Labor Party chairman, accused him of having requested and received $400,000 from businessman Avraham Nanikashvili in 2011. In exchange, the indictment said, Ben-Eliezer took advantage of his position at the time – as minister of industry, trade and employment – to help Nanikashvili and his partner, Jacky Ben-Zaken, in various ways.
Inter alia, it continued, he had exploited his position as head of the Petroleum Council to help Shemen, a company owned by Nanikashvili and Ben-Zaken, get a drilling license for the Med Ashdod site. Ben-Eliezer allegedly wielded pressure on various members of the council via his bureau chief, Ayelet Azoulay, the indictment said, and Shemen received the license.
Ben-Eliezer’s brief argued that he had known Nanikashvili for many years and the two had forged a friendship “based on mutual respect, and that’s all.” Nanikashvili loaned Ben-Eliezer the money after he apparently sought the businessman’s help in buying a new home that would suit his needs in light of his declining health.
The loan was never repaid because it was originally meant to be a bridge loan until Ben-Eliezer could obtain a mortgage, but the bank turned down his request, the brief continued. At that point, “given that Nanikashvili had originally offered him the money as a gift, Fuad thought he would repay the money when he managed to raise the necessary funds.” Nanikashvili, it added, “never demanded its repayment at any stage.”
The second count accused Ben-Eliezer of receiving 260,000 shekels ($69,000) from businessman Roi Mutzafi to buy a lot for his wife and son in Nes Tziona, and 500,000 shekels from Mutzafi to finance the purchase of a house in Jaffa. In this case, too, Ben-Eliezer said the loans were given because the two had a friendship based on “mutual respect, and that’s all.” Therefore, the brief added, they didn’t bother signing a contract or setting terms for the money’s repayment.
The third charge involved apparent money laundering: Ben-Eliezer is said to have kept a large stash of foreign currency, worth more than 1.2 million shekels, in cash at home, which acquaintance Charlie Yehuda changed into shekels for him.
Ben-Eliezer claimed he asked Yehuda for help because of their friendship and because of Yehuda’s financial expertise. “Fuad never asked Yehuda to identify himself as the person seeking the [currency exchange] service in order to prevent identification and generate incorrect reporting,” the brief insisted.
Finally, noted the indictment, Ben-Eliezer failed to file annual tax returns as required from 2007 to 2013, thereby concealing millions of shekels from the authorities which he had allegedly acquired by taking bribes. Ben-Eliezer responded that he filed all the requisite returns in May 2015, and that the loans he received from Nanikashvili and Mutzafi were private loans based on friendship, and therefore “do not constitute tax events, do not create tax liabilities and do not have to be reported.”
Ben-Eliezer’s attorneys have asked that the trial be delayed due to their client's medical condition, and are awaiting a response to this request from Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit.
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