Israeli President Seeks Time Off As Criminal Case Is Considered

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 25, 2007

JERUSALEM, Jan. 24 -- Israeli President Moshe Katsav requested Wednesday that he be suspended from official duties while the attorney general decides whether to indict him on rape and other criminal charges.

Katsav made the request in a letter to Dalia Itzik, speaker of Israel's parliament, who would assume his largely ceremonial duties. His request is to be considered Thursday by the parliamentary committee responsible for government oversight.

Attorney General Menachem Mazuz announced Tuesday that there is sufficient evidence to charge the 61-year-old president with rape, sexual assault, obstruction of justice and abuse of power.

Katsav has denied those allegations, which stem from the accusations of four women who worked for him while he was a cabinet minister in the late 1990s and as president. The presidency holds little political power in Israel, although it does have the authority to grant pardons and reduce prison sentences.

"I never hurt any man or any woman," Katsav said during a Wednesday evening news conference, during which he vowed not to resign unless indicted. "I'll fight to prove my innocence."

Katsav moved to suspend himself amid rising calls from Israel's parliament that he resign immediately. Speaking to a policy conference in Herzliya, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said, "I have no doubt in my heart the president cannot continue to carry out his duties and that he must leave the presidential residence."

Mazuz will make a final decision on the charges after a hearing in which Katsav, whose seven-year term expires in July, will present his defense. If Mazuz proceeds, it will mark the first indictment of an Israeli president.

The president is selected by parliament in a secret ballot and can be tried only if impeached first by parliament. Lawmakers from the Labor and Meretz parties announced Wednesday that they had collected enough lawmakers' signatures to begin the impeachment process.

In a statement calling for his resignation, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said, "From a legal standpoint, Moshe Katsav the individual enjoys the presumption of innocence."

"However, in this case, given the nature of the accusations, their severity and the timing of the decision, it is more appropriate for him to conduct the fight for his innocence not from inside the residence of the president of Israel," said Livni, a former member of the Likud Party, Katsav's political home throughout a career that has spanned three decades.

Livni, vice prime minister and foreign minister, is among the most powerful members of Olmert's government, which is itself buffeted by criminal allegations. Last week, Mazuz opened an investigation into whether Olmert, as finance minister, sought to influence the privatization of an Israeli bank to benefit a friend.

This month, the head of the Israel Tax Authority, Jackie Matza, was arrested along with Olmert's chief of staff, Shula Zaken, in a wide-ranging bribery investigation. Matza and Zaken have denied the allegations, which authorities said do not involve Olmert.

Haim Ramon resigned last year as Olmert's justice minister after being accused by a soldier of kissing her against her will. He is contesting the charge in a trial.

Yuli Tamir, the education minister and a member of the Labor Party, said, "In the present situation, it is impossible to educate students to respect the presidential institution and ask them to hang pictures in every school of a president charged with grave offenses."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company