(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Former defense minister and presidential hopeful Binyamin Ben-Eliezer on Sunday defended himself against charges of bribery, money-laundering, fraud, breach of public trust and tax offenses, while also stating that he had forgotten entire events after spending time in a medically induced coma five years ago.
In December, Ben-Eliezer, 80, was indicted along with businessmen Jacky Ben-Zaken, Charlie Yehuda, Roi Mutzfi, Avraham Nanikashvili and Ben-Eliezer’s former bureau chief Ayelet Azoulay. He was arraigned by the Tel Aviv District Court in February, but was exempt from appearing at the hearing given his old age and poor health.
The case deals with allegations from 2007-2014, covering a period when Ben-Eliezer was national infrastructure minister, with the indictment claiming he accepted large bribes from a series of associates to help advance their business interests; laundered millions of shekels (including NIS 2.142 million found in a safe-deposit box belonging to him at a Jerusalem bank) by buying real estate, funneling it to bank accounts belonging to relatives, and through the use of currency-exchange businesses; and received illegally acquired funds from real-estate developer Mutzfi to lobby on his behalf with Egyptian officials to help advance a project Mutzfi was planning in Egypt.
In the response on Sunday, Ben-Eliezer’s lawyer Jacob Weinroth denied on his behalf that the relationship with Mutzfi was anything other than friendly and that there had been no power or monetary interests involved.
The funds allegedly included NIS 500,000 for buying a multi-million-shekel house in Jaffa and Ben-Eliezer allegedly requested an additional NIS 1.3m. to purchase the house, but Mutzfi refused. Mutzfi did, however, provide an additional NIS 260,000 to Ben-Eliezer to buy a separate Ness Ziona property for his wife and son, and he received around $400,000 in 2011 from oil magnate Nanikashvili for assistance during a tax probe, according to the indictment.
Regarding Nanikashvili, Weinroth explained on Sunday that the funds had been intended as a gift, but Ben- Eliezer ultimately accepted only under condition that he would repay the funds.
Ben-Eliezer, however, subsequently had trouble paying the funds back when he failed to get an anticipated bank loan due to his age and poor health, the attorney said, adding that the former minister still intended to repay the funds but did not think it was a rush since Nanikashvili originally had intended them as a gift.
Weinroth also admitted on Ben-Eliezer’s behalf that Yehuda had converted funds in exchange for him keeping the former defense minister’s name out of the transaction, but said Yehuda had done this on his own.
Ben-Eliezer tendered his letter of resignation from the Knesset in December 2014, citing health issues, and he had been an expected front-runner in the June 2014 presidential elections but the case against him broke just before they were held and all but killed his bid.
Ben-Eliezer’s invocation of forgetfulness at the outset of the case could indicate he is in for a struggle as such a claim often is a sign that a defendant does not feel confident that his narrative will hold up well in court.