JERUSALEM: Israeli Knesset (parliament) member Benjamin Ben Eliezer (Labor) announced on Saturday that he is withdrawing from the presidential race to be held on Tuesday amid corruption allegations leveled against him.
Ben-Eliezer was interrogated by the Israeli police for five hours on Friday on suspicion that he received hundreds of thousands of dollars from a businessman, Avraham Nanikashvil, whose name was linked to another corruption affair at the Ashdod Port in Israel’s southern coastal strip along the Mediterranean. Ben Eliezer was interrogated under the suspicion that he accepted bribes and did not report the sums he received, with which he purchased an expensive penthouse, and evaded tax payment. He had served in the past three decades in various public roles including chairman of the Labor party, Defense Minister and as the Prime Minister’s deputy.
In an official statement in which he announced his withdrawal from the race, Ben-Eliezer verified that he was questioned by the police on Friday over corruption suspicions and added that the surfacing of the allegations three days before the presidential elections is not coincidental. “In the final stretch of a long competition - in which I, in all humility, was the leading candidate - I was invited with only a 20 minutes warning to the police to be questioned about the sources of financing as to my apartment,” he said, referring to a penthouse he had purchased. “I answered every question and even delivered all appropriate documentation and proof. Every shekel paid to purchase the apartment was transparent and known,” he added. “I hope that the ‘targeted assassination’ I have experienced will be the last affair in the current race for presidency,” Ben Eliezer said.
The Knesset will elect a new president to replace Shimon Peres, whose presidency ends in late July, on June 10. The leading candidate is Reuven Rivlin, but Ben Eliezer was thought to be a close runner-up who might challenge Rivlin in a second round. Candidates must receive more than 61 votes out of 120 in order to win the nomination, therefore it is likely there will be a second round held between the two top candidates. “I’m very sorry for ‘Fuad’ (Ben-Eliezer’s nickname) and sorry about the type of campaign that has surrounded the presidency,” Reuven Rivlin wrote on his Facebook page on Saturday.
Rivlin referred to another affair in which Likud MK Silvan Shalom, who was said to take part in the presidential race, decided not to run after sexual misconduct allegations started to surface against him in recent months. Members of the Labor party will convene on Saturday night to decide who they will support for the presidency now that Ben Elizer has quit the race. The other nominees other than Rivlin are former Knesset spokesperson Dalia Itzik, MK Meir Sheetrit (Hatnua), Chemistry Noble Prize laureate Prof. Dan Shechtman and former justice Dalia Dorner.
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