Jerusalem: President Moshe Katsav abruptly signed a plea bargain to end a yearlong investigation into rape and other sex crime allegations that have tarnished his office and raised alarm about the conduct of a swelling list of Israeli leaders.
Katsav on 28 June 2007 admitted to lesser charges of sexual harassment and obstruction of justice, and will pay damages to his accusers but serve no time in jail.
The deal marked a dramatic reversal by Attorney General Meni Mazuz, who announced in January that he planned to bring Katsav to trial on charges of rape and other forms of sexual assault — counts that could have landed him in prison for 20 years. Katsav’s accusers, all former female employees, condemned the deal, which entailed no jail time.
Newspaper accounts that Katsav used his position as Israel’s ceremonial head of state to force himself on workers — the most serious allegations ever against any Israeli leader — had sent the nation reeling.
At a televised news conference after the deal was announced, one of his accusers insisted that the president raped her even after the planned rape charges were dropped, calling him a “pervert” and “serial sex offender” who turned her into a sex slave.
“I am pained by the attorney general’s decision because it gives legitimacy to sex offenders,” she said. Her image was electronically blurred and her identity concealed, in keeping with usual practice in sexual assault cases.
The deal was widely seen as a victory for the embattled president, who stepped aside in January to fight the charges, but didn’t resign. Katsav, whose seven-year term was due to end next month, was expected to formally step down as part of the deal, his spokesman, Ronen Tsur, told The Associated Press.
Parliament Speaker Dalia Itzik has served as acting president since January and will continue to do so until President-elect Shimon Peres is inaugurated next month.
The Katsav scandal was only one of several roiling the government, with allegations of corruption and sexual misconduct tainting other leaders, including questionable business deals involving Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Olmert has been accused of corruption in connection with several real estate and business deals transacted before he became prime minister. Former Justice Minister Haim Ramon lost his job earlier this year and was convicted of an indecent act for forcibly kissing a female soldier.
Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson, a longtime Olmert friend, is under investigation in an embezzlement case and has suspended himself from office. And a powerful lawmaker and Olmert ally, Tzahi Hanegbi faces charges of fraud, bribery and perjury in connection with appointments he made as a cabinet minister.
Katsav, who had always proclaimed his innocence, agreed to the plea bargain “after the smear campaign of the past year, and in order to spare his family the pain” of a prolonged legal process, Tzur said.
Mazuz said the deal came at Katsav’s request and was finalized just moments before Thursday’s news conference. He explained that some of the allegations would have been difficult to prove in court, and said the president’s lawyers presented new evidence at a special hearing last month .
Mazuz also said he took into consideration the damage a prolonged trial would have caused to “the national institution of the presidency and the image of the state of Israel.” Although the office _ once held by Zionist icons and revered statesmen _ is largely ceremonial, the president is supposed to be a moral beacon and a unifying force in Israel’s highly fragmented society.
Katsav, who immigrated to Israel from Iran as a child, began his political career in a poor town in Israel’s south, worked his way up to a back-bench position in the hard-line Likud party, and later became a junior Cabinet minister. A political lightweight, he stunned Israelis when parliament, swayed by the support a respected rabbi threw to him, elected him president seven years ago in a stinging defeat to Peres, the country’s elder statesman.
But Katsav’s relatively quiet presidency was sent into a tailspin last summer when a former employee accused him of forcing her to have sex in his office. Other women quickly came forward with similar accusations, painting the picture of a politician who had abused his power while in the president’s mansion and earlier as tourism minister.