By Joel Greenberg
Friday, December 31, 2010; 3:40 AM
JERUSALEM - An Israeli court found former president Moshe Katsav guilty Thursday of rape, indecent assault and sexual harassment of female subordinates, the most serious conviction of a former top official in Israel's history.
The verdict handed down in a case that had riveted the Israeli public was hailed as an affirmation of the rule of law and the rights of women, as well as a sign of changing norms in a society that for decades tended to condone sexual advances by powerful men in government and the military.
The president, whose role is largely ceremonial in Israel, is the head of state and is supposed to serve as a unifying national symbol. Katsav, 66, served in the post from 2000 to 2007, and the crimes of which he was convicted included several committed during that period.
"This is a sad day for the State of Israel," Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said in a statement after the verdict.
But he added, "Today the court delivered two clear-cut messages: that everyone is equal before the law, and that every woman has exclusive rights to her body."
The three-judge panel at the Tel Aviv District Court rejected Katsav's alibis, saying his testimony, in which he denied the charges, was "riddled with lies."
Katsav was convicted of twice raping a senior aide in 1998, when he was tourism minister, once in his Tel Aviv office and two months later in a hotel room in Jerusalem. He was also convicted of sexually molesting the aide on another occasion.
The judges said the events were part of a pattern of sexual harassment that ended with the firing of the aide after she resisted Katsav's advances.
Katsav was also convicted of suggestively embracing two female workers in his office on several occasions during his term as president, making a sexual innuendo toward one and obstructing justice by asking her about her testimony to the police.
Rape carries a minimum prison term of four years and a maximum of 16 years in Israel. Katsav's attorneys said they would appeal the verdict.
After his conviction, a stone-faced Katsav, who had consistently maintained that he was the victim of a media witch hunt, hurried out of the courtroom and returned to his home in the working-class town of Kiryat Malachi without speaking to reporters.
One of his sons, Boaz, asserted his father's innocence, saying that the judges had "made a decision according to their feelings" and that the trial had not been conducted according to "the ethics of Israel."
Women's rights advocates said the verdict would encourage those who had been the targets of sexual harassment or assault at home or at the workplace to complain to the police.
"The message sent today by the court to other victims of exploitation of authority is, 'Don't be silent,' " said Ronit Amiel, one of the state prosecutors in the case.
Moshe Negbi, Israel Radio's legal analyst, said the court had issued a "defining verdict" that could well have delivered "a mortal blow to the macho culture that turns women into an object of despicable sexual exploitation."
Changing public attitudes in Israel were reflected in the enactment in 1998 of a law against sexual harassment. In 2001, Yitzhak Mordechai, a former general and defense minister, was convicted of sexually assaulting two female subordinates. In 2007, Haim Ramon, a former justice minister, was convicted of indecent assault after he forcibly kissed a female soldier.
Katsav's conviction marked the formal end of a political career in which the Iranian-born politician who rose to the presidency from humble origins was held up as a role model for Sephardic Jewish immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East. A member of the rightist Likud party, he held several cabinet posts before parliament elected him president in 2000 in a surprise upset of Shimon Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who succeeded Katsav as president.
Greenberg is a special correspondent.