By AMY TEIBEL
The Associated Press
Friday, June 29, 2007; 9:23 AM
JERUSALEM -- Israeli President Moshe Katsav resigned Friday as part of a much-criticized plea bargain that dropped planned rape charges and the threat of jail time.
His resignation _ two weeks before his seven-year term was to expire _ takes effect Sunday and clears the way for his indictment on lesser charges of indecent acts, sexual harassment and obstruction of justice. He will receive a suspended prison sentence and be required to pay damages to two of his four accusers, all former female employees.
The plea deal Katsav signed Thursday was a dramatic reversal by Attorney General Meni Mazuz, who had announced in January that he planned to try the president on charges of rape and other sex crimes _ counts that could have landed him in prison for 20 years.
Katsav's accusers condemned the deal, as did women's rights groups and newspaper commentators. A public opinion poll by the Dahaf Research Institute published Friday in the Yediot Ahronot daily showed 69 percent of those surveyed opposed it, and 73 percent thought justice was not served.
The poll surveyed 503 people and had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.
Claims that Katsav used his position as Israel's ceremonial head of state to force himself on women were the most serious allegations ever brought against an Israeli leader. The scandal intensified growing worries about misconduct by a growing list of officials including questionable business deals involving Prime Minister Ehud Olmert before he became prime minister.
The deal, which dominated newspaper coverage on Friday, was widely seen as a victory for Katsav, who stepped aside from his duties in January to fight the rape allegations but did not quit.
Parliament Speaker Dalia Itzik has served as acting president since January and will continue to do so until President-elect Shimon Peres is inaugurated next month.
At a televised news conference Thursday, one of Katsav's accusers stood by her story that he raped her, calling him a "pervert" and "serial sex offender" who turned her into a sex slave.
"I am pained by the attorney general's decision because it gives legitimacy to sex offenders," said the woman, whose image was electronically blurred and her identity concealed.
One of Katsav's lawyers, Avigdor Feldman, said evidence did not back up the harsher charges that had been planned.
"It was clear to me after delving into the investigatory material that this case would go up in smoke or yield something negligible, as indeed happened," Feldman wrote in a column in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper.
Others saw things differently and called on Mazuz to resign, too.
"There is no explanation for this scandalous plea bargain," commentator Sima Kadmon wrote in the same newspaper. "The bottom line of the Katsav affair is that the attorney general has to step down."
Rape crisis groups planned a demonstration in Tel Aviv on Saturday night to express outrage over the deal.
Mazuz said some of the original allegations would have been difficult to prove in court, adding that the president's lawyers presented new evidence at a special hearing last month.
The attorney general said he also took into consideration the damage a prolonged trial would have caused to "the national institution of the presidency and the image of the state of Israel."
Several lawmakers demanded that Katsav's retirement benefits be revoked. Katsav, 61, is entitled to an apartment, car, assistants and a $120,000 annual pension, the Haaretz newspaper reported.
The law does not provide for a case of a convicted president, but several bills that would strip him of these benefits are to be submitted next week, Haaretz said.