Georgian-Israeli Businessman Convicted of Bribing Former Israeli Defense Minister

Avraham Nanikashvili payed the late Benjamin Ben-Eliezer $400,000 to testify on his behalf in a tax appeal hearing

Efrat Neuman
Gur Megiddo
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אברהם נניקשווילי בבית המשפט, היום
Avraham Nanikashvili in court, August 28, 2019. Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Efrat Neuman
Gur Megiddo

Georgian-Israeli businessman Avraham Nanikashvili was convicted Wednesday in Tel Aviv District Court of bribery and money laundering.

At the same time, Judge Benny Sagi acquitted businessman Roy Mussaffi. He and Nanikashvili had been charged with bribing the former minister and presidential candidate Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who died during the trial.

The heart of the indictment involved a $400,000 payment Nanikashvili gave Ben-Eliezer around 2011, while the latter was an elected official. The two described the amount as a loan and they even signed an official agreement. However, the loan didn’t accrue any interest and it was never paid back to Nanikashvili, nor did he ever ask for any of it back.

The former minister used the funds from Nanikashvili to buy a deluxe home in Jaffa’s Ajami neighborhood. In exchange for the bribe, according to the ruling, Ben-Eliezer testified on Nanikashvili’s behalf in a tax appeal hearing. Nanikashvili claimed in the hearing that Israel was not his primary residence for a certain period of his life, and therefore he was complaining about his tax bill. Ben-Eliezer provided an affidavit supporting his position.

The judge ruled that Nanikashvili was fully aware that Ben-Eliezer would testify for him when he gave him the money and noted that the “halo around Ben-Eliezer” constituted a part of the consideration to have him testify. “Ben-Eliezer provided his public stature to help the defendant. It was not private testimony. One can only conclude the act was tied to his position.”

‘The accused felt flattered by Ben-Eliezer’s closeness’

Regarding the personal relations between Nanikashvili and Ben-Eliezer, the judge ruled that their friendship does not rule out the possibility that giving funds had a criminal motive. “There is no doubt in my heart that the accused felt close to Ben-Eliezer,” he stated. “One could say the accused felt flattered by Ben-Eliezer’s closeness.” Still, he noted, he concluded that the friendship alone didn’t stand at the base of Nanikashivili’s motives at the time he gave Ben-Eliezer the money, based on parameters such as the amount of time they had known each other (three years at the time the money was given), the intensity of their relationship and the financial benefit to Nanikashvili for making the alleged loan.

The judge did accept the defense’s version regarding Nanikashvili’s generosity and his habit of lending money to many of his acquaintances and to donate money generously. He ruled the payment was influenced by generosity and friendship – “but not only that.” The judged ruled that “a financial interest enters the relationship that taints the payment with bribery.”

The main charge in the indictment was that the alleged bribe included leaks to Nanikashvili’s partner, Jacky Ben-Zaken, of the Petroleum Council, with the help of Ben-Eliezer’s former office manager, Ayelet Azoulay. The judge rejected this claim. Likewise, he rejected the claim linking the meeting that Azoulay organized with Noble Energy CEO Binyamin Zomer, as part of the alleged quid pro quo for the bribe. The judge ruled that it was not proven that Ben-Eliezer was aware of the independent relationship between Ben-Zaken and Azoulay.

Ben-Eliezer himself spoke in one case with Yaakov Mimran, who headed the Petroleum Council and tried to influence him in a professional matter for the benefit of Shemen Oil, a company that was controlled by Nanikashvili and Ben Zaken. The judge ruled that a relationship between that conversation and the funds Nanikashvili provided was proved, nor was it proved that Nanikashvili knew about the conversation.

Nanikashvili’s attorneys, Nati Simhoni and Yoav Sananes, commented: “Even though the court accepted some of our arguments, the result is different than what we had hoped. We will study the ruling.”

Harsh criticism of the prosecution

The charge against Mussaffi was that he gave Ben-Eliezer 760,000 shekels ($215,000), allegedly to receive help with his business through Ben-Eliezer’s ties with Egyptian authorities.

Judge Sagi sharply criticized the prosecution in his acquittal of Mussaffi for not warning the businessman at the beginning of his investigation. He noted that Mussaffi was called in for questioning by the police regarding 260,000 out of the amount he gave Ben-Eliezer, and it was decided not to warn him that he was a suspect. During his questioning, the investigator, Hai Biton, said, “It is an open investigation, and therefore I expect you to talk.” Mussaffi told Biton of his own initiative, outside the interrogation room, about the 500,000 shekels he gave Ben-Eliezer.

“Investigator Biton described in his testimony that even after he told his superiors, they decided not to reclassify the questioning and ordered him to conduct it as planned from the start, as an open investigation, because being a ‘witness’ doesn’t require warning the one being questioned,” the judge remarked.

Mussaffi was then asked about having asked Ben-Eliezer for help getting permits in Egypt years earlier, an act raising suspicions of bribery, and he responded thinking he was giving testimony and not someone suspected of anything. The judge ruled that the police conduct violated Mussaffi’s rights.

Sagi had even harsher words for the prosecution. “One would expect the prosecution in real time, or at least after the fact, to criticize such grave behavior, but various members of the prosecution went ‘hand in hand’ with the investigators, backing up its serious conduct and focusing on the attempt to validate its outcomes,” he stated.

The judge accepted Mussaffi’s claim regarding the 260,000 shekels that his bank account served only as a weigh station for transferring the funds to Ben-Eliezer – and Mussaffi helped his partner, businessman Haim Yehezkel, transfer the amount at the request of the former minister. Regarding the other half million shekels that Mussaffi did give Ben-Eliezer, the judge rejected the thesis that the money constituted a bribe. Mussaffi said the money was exchanged between old friends, who had known each other for three decades, and the judge accepted that.

Ben-Eliezer did use his connections with the Egyptian government to help arrange permits for workers of a company that Mussaffi owned that dealt in chemicals for textiles. The judge ruled that the assistance did not depart from the help others gave the company, such as former defense minister Ehud Barak and former Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who acted in the name of Israel’s interests.

The judge also accepted the defense’s argument that the alleged quid pro quo was negated by the sequence of events. The involvement with the permits ended in 2008, while Ben-Eliezer’s request for the money came in 2011.

The investigation became public in 2014, days before the vote on Ben-Eliezer ‘s candidacy for president, which was retracted. The Tel Aviv District prosecutor indicted Ben-Eliezer in December 2015 on charges of bribery, fraud, breach of trust, money laundering and tax evasion.

After Ben-Eliezer died in August 2016, the prosecution decided to carry on with the cases against the remaining suspects. It struck deals with three of the five suspects: Azoulay, Ben-Zaken and Ben-Eliezer confidant Charlie Yehuda, who helped him launder money.

Attorney Suzana Shor (I could not verify name), who handled the case for the state, commented: “The court accepted our position regarding Nanikashvili and convicted him of giving a bribe of a million-and-a-half shekels and of money laundering. The accused gave a bribe to the late Benjamin Ben-Eliezer so that he would support his financial interests. Regarding the acquittal of Roy Mussaffi, we will study the criticism, read the ruling and stake our position.”