Israel's former justice minister is convicted of indecent behaviour

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The travails of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government were compounded yesterday when the former justice minister Haim Ramon was convicted for kissing a young female soldier against her will.

Mr Ramon, a previously pivotal figure in Mr Olmert's Kadima party, was found guilty of indecent behaviour when the Tel Aviv magistrates' court decided that he had forcibly kissed the young woman just before taking part in the cabinet meeting which approved the war in Lebanon last July.

Mr Ramon, 56, faces up to three years in prison when he is sentenced later this month, but will appeal against the court's decision. Mr Olmert, who had intended to reinstate Mr Ramon if he had been acquitted, may have to reshuffle his cabinet to appoint a new justice minister - a post temporarily filled by the Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni. The Prime Minister expressed his "deep sorrow at the conviction of his friend Haim Ramon".

Mr Ramon's departure from frontline politics is a blow to Mr Olmert partly because of his importance to the party as a leading defector from Labour. Kadima's claim to be drawn from the left as well as right will be further undermined if Shimon Peres, the other prominent Kadima minister to have defected from Labour, fulfils his ambition to become president. Mr Peres is a candidate to replace President Moshe Katsav, who is facing an indictment for rape and other charges.

With unexpected unanimity, the three person panel in Tel Aviv found that the complainant, who was finishing her Army service, told "the absolute truth" when she complained that she had not agreed to the kiss, which took place at a Defence Ministry party at which she had asked to be photographed hugging Mr Ramon.

According to the indictment, the woman tried to leave after the photograph was taken but Mr Ramon "continued to embrace her with one hand and drew her near. With the other hand, he grasped her cheeks, turned her face toward him and pressed his lips to her lips, while inserting his tongue into her mouth, all without her consent."

Mr Ramon had argued throughout the trial that the kiss was the natural outcome of a lengthy flirtation that the woman had conducted with him, and that he had not forced it on her. After the verdict Yuval Steinitz, the chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security committee called for a change in sexual offences law, adding: "It cannot be that a misunderstanding between a man and a woman that causes immense discomfort to one of them should end in conviction."

If Mr Ramon's conviction is upheld, it will add to a series of scandals threatening to engulf parts of the Israeli political establishment. Mr Olmert is himself facing a police investigation into his role in the privatisation of the Bank Leumi, while Tzachi Hanegbi, who defected to Kadima from Likud, is on trial over public appointments he made while a minister.