Former Israeli Defense Minister Ben-Eliezer Indicted for Bribery, Fraud and Money Laundering

Ex-Labor MK and defense minister allegedly received nearly $515,000 from businessmen in exchange for favors. Charges also filed against his bureau chief and three businessmen.

Close-up photo of Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, during his time as infrastructure minister in 2006.
Eyal Toueg

Former minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer was indicted on charges of bribery, fraud, breach of trust, money laundering and tax evasion on Wednesday. The five charges relate to a period between 2007 and 2014, during which time he served as a Labor Party MK and minister for industry, trade and labor.

According to the indictment filed by state prosecutors in Tel Aviv, Ben-Eliezer demanded and accepted money from various businessmen for activities related to his duties. He used some of the money to invest in real estate. He is also charged with the unreported conversion of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Ben-Eliezer is also accused of making false statements to the Knesset speaker, in which he failed to declare capital and assets he had accumulated. He is also accused of failing to report taxable revenues and exploiting his position as a senior public official.

Charges were also filed against Ayelet Azoulay – the head of his bureau at the time – and businessmen Roy Mussaffi, Avraham Nanikashvili and Jacky Ben-Zaken, as well as Ben-Eliezer’s friend, Charlie Yehuda.

The first graft incident allegedly occurred in 2011. The charges state that Ben-Eliezer approached Nanikashvili, asking for and receiving 400,000 shekels ($103,000) in exchange for actions he took as industry and trade minister on behalf of Nanikashvili and business partner Ben-Zaken. Ben-Eliezer (assisted by Azoulay) allegedly used his connections as minister in charge of the Petroleum Council to help the businessmen’s Shemen Industries obtain a drilling permit for offshore oil. The license was obtained after pressure exerted by the minister and his bureau chief on the council.

The indictment claims that Ben-Eliezer submitted a sworn affidavit in court, while testifying on behalf of Nanikashvili in another case which involved large financial gains for the businessman. Nanikashvili is accused of bribery in that incident, while Ben-Zaken and Azoulay are charged with fraud and breach of trust.

In the second charge, at the alleged behest of businessman Roy Mussaffi, Ben-Eliezer reportedly approached Egypt’s consul in Tel Aviv with a request to obtain work visas for Mussaffi’s company’s employees. The consul immediately approved the visas, and did so subsequently whenever they were required. In exchange, Mussaffi allegedly gave Ben-Eliezer hundreds of thousands of shekels to buy a plot in Rishon Letzion for his wife and son, and half a million shekels to finance a home in Jaffa. State prosecutors claim that Ben-Eliezer asked Mussaffi to transfer additional sums amounting to more than a million shekels – sums that, ultimately, were not handed over despite his pleas. Mussaffi is charged with bribery.

The third charge relates to tax offenses in which Ben-Eliezer allegedly held on to more than two million shekels in cash for over a year. He allegedly wanted to use this cash to buy real estate but without depositing the money in his account, in order to avoid detection as someone with large amounts of cash. Ben-Eliezer allegedly approached his friend Charlie Yehuda several times, requesting that he convert the money for him.

The fourth charge is that he filed false capital statements as a Knesset member. The fifth charge is that he didn’t file annual tax reports as required, concealing millions of shekels he had obtained as bribes or income obtained while exploiting his status as a senior public official.

The indictment was filed after Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein rejected Ben-Eliezer’s claims in a private hearing. Sources familiar with the case said Ben-Eliezer was willing to admit to breach of trust and tax evasion, and to making false capital claims as part of a plea bargain, but refused to admit to the more serious charges of bribery and money laundering. His attorneys claimed the money was given to him for friendly assistance or as loans, not as bribes. Ben-Eliezer also asked prosecutors to take into account his deteriorating medical condition.

Ben-Eliezer’s attorney, Jacob Weinroth, protested his client’s innocence, saying, “We’ll deal with these charges in court.”

Nanikashvili’s attorneys, Nati Simhoni and Yoav Sananes, said they regretted “the prosecutor’s decision to indict our client. We contend that the charges are totally groundless. The loan was given based on a close relationship, founded on sincere friendship. Nanikashvili never requested or obtained a thing from Ben-Eliezer or any of his delegates. There is nothing wrong with a loan between soulmates, and the attempt to find fault with it is a travesty of the truth and common sense. We believe that our client’s innocence will emerge in the course of the legal process and that he will be acquitted.”

Attorney Yaron Kosteliz, representing Ben-Zaken, called the charges “unfounded,” noting that “it would have been better not to file this indictment. The members of the Petroleum Council who made the final decision regarding Shemen Industries were appointed long after Ben-Eliezer ended his term as [the relevant] minister. State prosecutors also don’t dispute the professional-economic nature of this decision and don’t claim that Ben-Eliezer, Azoulay or Ben-Zaken approached council members. It’s regrettable that charges were filed against Ben-Zaken and we’re convinced he will be exonerated.”