Former Israeli defense minister and career politician Benjamin Ben-Eliezer died Sunday at age 80, leaving the nation to reflect on a long life of military service and public leadership, beginning just after Israel's independence in 1948.
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But even as his many achievements in life provided a base for that reflection, Ben-Eliezer spent the last years of his life mired in legal controversy over alleged cash gifts worth millions of shekels from several businesspeople.
An indictment filed last December accused Ben-Eliezer of several counts of corruption. The first count said that in 2011, he requested and received $400,000 from businessman Avraham Nanikashvili. In exchange, the indictment said, Ben-Eliezer used his position at the time – minister of industry, trade and labor – to help Nanikashvili and his business partner, Jacky Ben-Zaken.
The second count accused him of a similar behavior. It said Ben-Eliezer had received 260,000 shekels from businessman Roi Mutzafi to buy a plot of land for his wife and son in Nes Tziona, plus another 500,000 shekels with which to buy a house in Jaffa.
In both of these cases, Ben-Eliezer claimed that Nanikashvili and Mutzafi had merely loaned him the money because they were friends.
A third count charged him with money laundering because an acquaintance, Charlie Yehuda, had converted foreign currency that Ben-Eliezer kept in his house in cash into shekels for him. In total, this foreign currency was worth over two million shekels.
Finally, the indictment charged that from 2007 to 2013, Ben-Eliezer had failed to file annual tax returns as required by law, thereby concealing the millions of shekels in income that he received in bribes. Ben-Eliezer’s response was that since the money in question was actually just loans from his friends, he wasn’t obligated to report it.
He had asked Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to stay the legal proceedings against him on account of his poor health, but in April, Mendelblit rejected this request due to the prosecution’s opposition. However, the court did give him permission not to attend the hearings due to his health problems.
His attorneys, Amit Hadad and Jacob Weinroth, also negotiated with the prosecution over a plea bargain to end the case. At one point, prosecutors were prepared to withdraw the bribery charges against him and agree to a sentence that involved a 10 million shekel fine ($2.7 million) but no jail time. However, Ben-Eliezer refused.
Ben-Eliezer underwent medical treatments several times a week, including dialysis for his kidney failure, and several medical opinions submitted to the court by his lawyers predicted that he wouldn’t live long. Nor did the prosecution ever submit a medical opinion to the contrary.
A few days before Mendelblit rejected his request for a stay of proceedings, Ben-Eliezer submitted a plea of not guilty in which he denied all the charges against him. At the beginning of the plea, his attorneys noted that he had fallen ill in 2011 and spent eight days in a coma. Since then, they wrote, his condition has “deteriorated steadily, and his life is now on hold.”
With Ben-Eliezer dead, it’s not clear whether the case will continue against the other defendants or whether the charges will be dropped.