updated 1/31/2007 10:19:24 AM ET 2007-01-31T15:19:24

A court convicted former Justice Minister Haim Ramon on Wednesday of kissing a female soldier against her will — a case that riveted the country’s attention and added another layer of scandal to Israel’s beleaguered leadership.

The verdict was expected to clear the way for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to launch a major Cabinet shake-up.

Ramon, 56, was charged with sexual misconduct after kissing the 21-year-old woman at a party at the Defense Ministry on the first day of Israel’s war with Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon last summer. Ramon, who is divorced, said the woman had flirted with him and the kiss was consensual.

“There are some lines that cannot be crossed,” said Judge Hayuta Kochan, who read the unanimous verdict by a three-judge panel. “This was not a kiss of affection. This has all the elements of sexual crime.”

Ramon could face up to three years in prison. His sentencing will be Feb. 21, Israeli media said. Ramon, who left the courthouse without commenting, is expected to appeal.

Olmert’s office said the prime minister “expressed sorrow” at Ramon’s conviction.

A member of Olmert’s Kadima Party, Ramon was a key political ally of the prime minister and served as justice minister until the indictment forced him to step down in August. He has remained a member of parliament.

Chaotic scene
Ramon arrived to a chaotic scene at the Tel Aviv Magistrates Court. Hordes of reporters and TV cameras swarmed around him as he made his way to the small courtroom. With photographers snapping his picture, he sat stone-faced ahead of the verdict.

As the half-hour verdict was read, a visibly anxious Ramon held his head in his hands. After the decision, his girlfriend hugged him in support.

The verdict said Ramon’s defense was full of contradictions, and said it was obvious the young soldier was “authentic and trustworthy” and had suffered a “traumatic experience.”

“We completely endorse the plaintiff’s version,” it said.

Major Cabinet reshuffle expected
The conviction is expected to lead to a major reshuffle in the Cabinet, where Ramon’s old job as justice minister is being temporarily held by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

Political analyst Hanan Crystal said Olmert will probably go ahead with the move in the coming weeks. Ramon’s replacement is likely to be current Interior Minister Ronnie Bar-On, also of Kadima. The hard-line Yisrael Beiteinu party is also likely to be given a second Cabinet seat, Crystal said.

But unpopular Defense Minister Amir Peretz is not likely to leave his post now, Crystal said. Olmert is expected to wait until the government commission investigating last summer’s war in Lebanon releases its findings, which might implicate Peretz and force him to step aside. No date has been given for the release of the commission’s conclusions.

With Peretz likely to retain his job for the time being, any Cabinet shake-up is unlikely to have a significant impact on government policies toward the Palestinians. Peretz leads the Labor Party, the junior partner in the current coalition government.

Series of political scandals
The Ramon conviction comes amid a series of scandals involving Israeli leaders. Last week, the attorney general said he plans to indict President Moshe Katsav on charges of raping and sexually assaulting former female employees. Katsav has taken a leave of absence, and this week vacated his official residence in Jerusalem while he fights the charges.

Authorities also have launched a criminal investigation into Olmert’s role in the government’s sale of a controlling interest in a bank in 2005, when he was finance minister. Investigators suspect Olmert tried to steer the bid in favor of a supporter.

Tzahi Hanegbi, another prominent Kadima member, has been indicted on charges of fraud, bribery and perjury in connection with appointments he made as a minister.

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