President Moshe Katsav faced mounting pressure on Monday to quit after police recommended he be charged with rape in a sex scandal tarnishing a public office Israelis cherish as being above their rough-and-tumble politics.
Katsav, whose position is largely ceremonial and widely seen as a unifying force in a country of deep political divides, has denied any wrongdoing and said he is the victim of a “public lynching without trial.”
After weeks of investigation, police and the Justice Ministry said they had gathered evidence that Katsav, a veteran politician, “carried out sex crimes of rape, sexual molestation by force and without consent” against women who worked for him.
It will be up to Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz to weigh whether to indict Katsav, 60, and a police source said a decision was likely in about two weeks.
Since Israel’s founding in 1948, rumors have swirled about prominent politicians’ alleged sexual affairs. One cabinet minister -- denying any wrongdoing -- is currently on trial on allegations he kissed a woman soldier against her will.
But no Israeli politician has ever been charged with a major sex crime, and Katsav could face to up to 16 years in prison if he is tried and found guilty of rape.
'No choice but to say goodbye'
Commentators in Israel’s biggest newspapers said it was time for Katsav, who has held a series of cabinet posts as a member of the right-wing Likud party, to step down.
“Moshe Katsav served as president for the past six years and the presidency served him. There is no choice but to say goodbye,” commentator Nahum Barnea wrote in the Yedioth Ahronoth daily.
“Farewell, President Katsav,” wrote legal analyst Ze’ev Segal in the Haaretz newspaper, urging him to “save ... the public’s faith in the institution of the presidency” by announcing his resignation immediately.
Facing a threatened walkout by legislators if he attended the opening of parliament’s winter session on Sunday, Katsav decided not to show up to avoid “being part of these theatrics,” his brother said on Army Radio.
The scandal is unlikely to have any direct effect on the fortunes of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his coalition government. But it has diverted public attention from other political issues in the aftermath of the recent Lebanon war.
With headlines on Katsav’s predicament emblazoned across red ink backgrounds on newspaper front pages, accounts of bickering within Olmert’s coalition over the possibility of enlisting a far-right partner have been relegated to the inner folds.
Newspapers also gave the Katsav affair pride of place ahead of the preliminary findings of a military investigation highly critical of the functioning of an army division in battles against Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas in the 34-day war.
Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog, whose late father Chaim Herzog served as president, said that while the sex scandal was “most embarrassing and most unpleasant,” judicial authorities had sent a message that everyone was equal under the law.
Katsav, born in Iran, is married with five children and six grandchildren. His wife has told reporters she was certain her husband would be proved innocent.