Rape Allegations Deepen Israel's Political Woes

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The front page of Monday's edition of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz carried a photograph showing President Moshe Katsav staring intently ahead, lips pursed, his eyes darkened by shadow. To his left sits his wife, expressionless. To his right is Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, head bowed, looking at the ground, as if hoping not to be seen.

They are, the caption says, attending an event at the National Campus for Archaeology in Jerusalem. But they could just as well be reacting to the accompanying story, which reveals that Israeli police have recommended to the Attorney General's office that President Katsav be indicted on charges of rape, sexual harassment, fraud, obstruction of justice, and a raft of other crimes. If the Attorney General accepts the recommendation, Katsav could be charged with the most serious offenses ever leveled against a serving high-ranking Israeli politician. And it means Olmert, his administration already in turmoil, must now contend with the eruption of another in a series of scandals that — although this one is not of his making — together with the ongoing fallout of the Lebanon war are eroding public faith in Israeli leadership.

Earlier on Sunday, lead police investigator Major General Yohanan Danino had met with Israeli Attorney General Menachem Mazuz and his senior aides. His team, Danino told prosecutors, had in recent months amassed enough evidence to convince them that Katsav should stand trial for nine separate offences, ranging from two counts of rape to the charge of abusing his office. Ironically, the investigation began after Katsav himself had approached Mazuz claiming a female aide was blackmailing him with threats to go public with accusations of sexual harassment. Katsav wanted the aide's conduct investigated and called her a liar, a strategy that backfired when several more women came forward with similar allegations. Danino's team reportedly heard testimony from ten women, and recommended that charges be filed in five of their cases, while maintaining that the other five further indicate a pattern of habitual sexual misconduct. The investigation also unearthed evidence of obstruction of justice, illegal wire-tapping (of presidential employees), fraud, and improper conduct in granting presidential pardons.

State attorneys will review the police findings, then recommend a course of action to the Attorney General, whose decision is expected in three or four weeks. Israel's justice system theoretically operates under the rubric of "innocent until proven guilty," and Katsav's lawyer and allies claimed he was set up: "We know he is being framed and he is being blamed of things that did not happen," said his brother, Lior Katsav. But the volume and gravity of the charges generated immediate fallout. Minister of Education Yuli Tamir called on Katsav to resign — he is immune from prosecution while in office — and numerous members of the Knesset, Israeli's legislative branch, warned Katsav to stay away from the body's first winter session on Monday, although opening the session has been a tradition for the largely ceremonial office of the presidency. "The onus is on you to spare the Israeli public and yourself from the embarrassment," said Knesset member Amira Dotan. Katsav took the advice and stayed away.

The Iranian-born career politician was elected president by the Knesset's Presidential vote in 2000, a victory as surprising then as his apparent fall from grace has been now. Katsav seems unlikely to escape indictment and, if his case does go to trial, could face imprisonment. His is hardly the first high-level political scandal in Israel: Several past presidents, cabinet ministers and prime ministers have been investigated for financial improprieties; ex-Justice Minister Haim Ramon resigned this past August after being indicted for sexual harassment. But that won't lessen the sting for Olmert, who has seen his support nosedive this year as more and more Israelis have lost faith in their leaders.

Olmert's management of the Lebanon War continues to be intensely criticized. The main plank of his election campaign — the promise to withdraw roughly one third of West Bank settlers and the consolidation of the rest behind an expanded security barrier — has been put in the deep freeze by the crises in Lebanon and Gaza. Questions have arisen about the propriety of a real estate deal he made years ago. And he's generating further controversy by seeking to bolster his shaky ruling coalition through courting a far-right political faction leader, Avigdor Lieberman, who has called for the forced relocation of Israeli-Arabs into the Palestinian Territories.

Katsav and Olmert, like the Israeli public will have to wait for the Attorney General's decision, but given the difficulties of recent months, it's hard to imagine this coming at a worse time. Personally, Katsav is watching his career and his reputation fall apart, and he may lose his freedom as well. Politically, Olmert is being battered by political winds in and out of his control. Perhaps he's staring at the ground in that photo because he's worried about what's coming up next.