JERUSALEM — Israeli President Moshe Katsav angrily defended himself Wednesday against accusations or rape and other crimes, calling the charges "poisonous, horrible lies" and pledging to remain in office to fight them.
In an hour-long address with his wife sitting nearby, Katsav said he would fight to his last breath against what would be an unprecedented criminal indictment of an Israeli head of state.
Katsav, who was warned by Attorney General Meni Mazuz on Tuesday of possibly being indicted, was defiant despite growing calls from top Israeli leaders for him to step down or face impeachment. However, he said he would step down if he was officially charged.
"Don't believe the libel, the defamation, the lies. There is only one truth ... I am the target of one of the worst attacks in the history of the state of Israel," he said.
With his voice cracking, an increasingly angry Katsav blamed a media smear campaign — aided by the police — for his troubles and said he would "fight to my last breath, even if it means a world war, to clear my name."
“McCarthyism is alive in Israel,” he said, referring to the tactics of the disgraced U.S. senator who with scant evidence accused many Americans of being Communists or sympathizers in the 1950s. “I am not prepared to bow to blackmail.”
At one point he screamed at a television reporter in the audience, saying he should be ashamed of himself for his coverage of the scandal.
Katsav, 61, has faced growing pressure to resign since Mazuz announced Tuesday that he planned to charge the president with crimes stemming from accusations by former female staffers that Katsav forced them to have sex with him.
"I did not commit any of the acts that are attributed to me," he said.
Katsav will be given a chance to present his side to Mazuz before the attorney general makes a final decision on whether to charge him. "If the attorney general decides on an indictment ... I promise to resign immediately," he said.
Katsav: Charges racially motivated
Katsav, who was born in Iran, implied that the charges against him were motivated by racism against Israelis of Middle Eastern origin, who had traditionally been marginalized by Jews of European heritage.
"I saw myself as a symbol for all those who are not part of the elite clique born with silver spoons in their mouths ... who believe that only they can represent the people of Israel," he said.
Katsav’s seven-year term is to end this summer. Legal authorities have said the charges could carry a sentence of more than 20 years in prison.
Lawmakers and Cabinet officials urged Katsav to give up his fight to stay in office, saying the scandal was tarnishing the presidency.
While Katsav is innocent until proven guilty, “he should not be waging the battle to prove his innocence from the president’s office,” Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who also serves as justice minister, said in a statement.
Minister of Public Security Avi Dichter also urged Katsav to step down, saying he “must not cling to the post, not even for a few months.”
Dozens of lawmakers, meanwhile, set an impeachment process in motion, mustering enough signatures for parliament to convene a debate on removing the president.
“If the president doesn’t announce his resignation tonight, we will launch impeachment proceedings,” lawmaker Zehava Galon said.
Stepping aside temporarily would not be enough to end the impeachment push, said Galon’s spokeswoman Idit Shabtay-Sidis. Impeachment would require the support of 90 of parliament’s 120 legislators.
No sitting Israeli president has ever been charged with a crime. But the Israeli public has grown accustomed to the spectacle of politicians being put on trial or tainted by corruption allegations. One former Cabinet minister is currently being tried in a separate sexual misconduct case, and corruption allegations have reached as high as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, now under investigation for his involvement in the sale of a government-controlled bank.
'Sad day for the state of Israel'
The allegation that Katsav used his position as Israel’s ceremonial head of state to force himself on female employees has left the nation reeling.
“It is a sad day for the state of Israel,” said lawmaker Benny Elon, who called on Katsav to resign to spare the nation further trauma.
The office of president was once filled by Zionist legends and revered statesmen, but has lost esteem in recent years.
Katsav’s predecessor, the outspoken war hero turned peacemaker Ezer Weizman, resigned in 2000 after the attorney general ruled he had improperly accepted more than $300,000 in gifts from a French millionaire. Weizman was never indicted.
Katsav had a far less lofty resume than his predecessors. He had been a low-level Cabinet minister and a Likud Party stalwart when the parliament chose him to be president in 2000 in a shocking upset over Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres, after a revered rabbi swung votes by saying a “vision” showed him the heavens favored Katsav.
But Katsav’s relatively quiet presidency was rocked last summer when one of his female employees accused him of forcing her to have sex in his office. Other women came forward with similar accusations, painting the picture of a politician who had abused his power for years.
In the face of the growing scandal, Katsav disappeared from public life, hunkering down in the president’s compound in Jerusalem. He even briefly removed himself from office in September instead of presiding over the inauguration of a new chief justice for the Supreme Court.
On Tuesday, Mazuz said he had collected enough evidence to indict Katsav on charges of rape, harassment, abusing his power for sex, obstructing justice and illegally distributing gifts while president and Cabinet minister.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.