(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The Supreme Court on Wednesday stunned former cabinet minister Shlomo Benizri by increasing his jail sentence from 18 months to four years on charges of accepting a bribe, fraud and breach of faith and obstruction of justice.
The court also more than doubled the fine imposed on Rabbi Reuven Elbaz, who was convicted of being an intermediary in a bribery offense.
The decisions came following appeals by Benizri and Elbaz against the conviction and sentences on the one hand and by the state calling for tougher punishments on the other.
"We are facing a phenomenon of increasing corruption in Israeli society, one which has not passed over government institutions," wrote Justice Edmond Levy. "Accepting this situation would be like accepting degeneration and complete loss of public confidence in government administration. In order to deal with this affliction and deter the majority, words and attempts to reason are not enough. The time has come to take action by putting a higher price tag for violations of this kind than has been customary in the past. I do not believe the sentence handed down by Tel Aviv District Court satisfies that goal."
After leaving the courtroom, Benizri stopped for a moment to talk to the reporters, who surrounded him, telling them he could not understand why the court had increased his punishment.
"For the past eight or nine years I have endured a very harsh delay of justice," he said. "I have been persecuted. There have been dozens and hundreds of articles which slandered me by saying I received bribes, bribes and more bribes. In the end, the court determined unequivocally that I did not take a single penny for myself. That is what the district court ruled, even though the prosecution tried to make people believe that this was the biggest bribery story ever. Who was bribed?
"During the trial they talked about a tender that was supposed to be slanted but wasn't, a hotel that was supposed to be built but wasn't, a bribe that I was supposed to receive but didn't, and a loan I took and paid back. Therefore, I don't understand the harshness of the sentence," he said.
The state's representative, attorney Michael Karshen, rejected Benizri's claim that the court had not convicted him of taking money for himself. "Both courts convicted Benizri of lining his own pocket to the tune of NIS 100,000," he said.
Karshen added that the court "saw fit to take a tough stance against those who are tainted by corruption and to send a sharp, clear and unequivocal message to the public and to representatives of the public that putting money in your own pocket, serious crimes of fraud and breach of faith and bribery deserve heavy prison sentences. We are saddened that [Benizri and Elbaz] were guilty of these kinds of criminal actions but in view of their gravity, there was no choice but to punish them severely."
In the ruling, Levy and Justices Esther Hayut and Hanan Meltzer accepted all of the findings and the factual interpretations of the Tel Aviv District Court.
The actions for which Benizri was found guilty of bribery included
Manpower contractor Moshe Sela paid for Benizri's lawyer in a libel suit.
Sela bought Benizri furniture and an air conditioner.
Sela paid for workers who renovated an apartment belonging to him which he had purchased and immediately leased to Benizri.
Sela returned a loan that Benizri had taken from a synagogue charity.
Sela promised he would give Benizri shares in a hotel he planned to build. In return for these benefits, Benizri did various favors for Sela, including intervening on Sela's behalf with then-Minister of Labor and Welfare Eli Yishai so that all the foreign workers allocated to a project would be granted to his company and that the law would be changed so that Sela's company, which was not a construction company but one that imported foreign workers, would be allowed to bring in the workers.
Benizri put pressure on Ya'acov Buchris, the man he himself had appointed head of the Employment Service, to break the law in an attempt to award a tender for 4,000 foreign workers to two companies fronted by Sela. When Buchris refused, Benizri fired him.