Israel's president retreats in face of sex offence claims

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The Independent Online

Israel's President Moshe Katsav cancelled his scheduled appearance at the opening of the Knesset yesterday in the wake of a police report recommending his indictment for rape and other sexual offences, along with a string of other charges.

Mr Katsav spared himself the embarrassment of planned walk-outs and protests by members of parliament by staying away from the ceremony. His decision followed an even heavier than expected list of alleged offences, including two cases in which female former employees in his office say they were raped by Mr Katsav, once during his presidency and once when he was Tourism Minister in the late Nineties.

The police have also recommended his prosecution on hitherto unexpected charges of using public funds to purchase gifts for members of his wife's family and personal friends. The charges are also understood to include ones of illegally bugging the telephone conversations of employees and interference with witnesses.

Mr Katsav, who defeated the former prime minister Shimon Peres for the presidency six years ago despite his reputation as a colourless apparatchik in the right-wing Likud party, could delay any indictment by insisting on remaining in office for the remaining nine months of his term, provided 90 Knesset members do not vote to impeach him.

But his lawyer, Tzion Amir, hinted that he would resign or suspend himself if indicted, telling the Ynet news service that the President would "apparently draw the conclusions" if the Attorney General, Menachem Mazuz, decides in favour of an indictment after receiving the report of the Jerusalem district attorney's office.

The President's brother Lior accused unnamed "vultures" of seeking to hound Mr Katsav from office, and added: "We have no doubt of his innocence. We know he is being framed and he is being accused of things that did not happen."

The woman accusing Mr Katsav when he was Tourism Minister was quoted by Israel's daily Yedhiot Ahronot as telling "a close friend" that he had sometimes told her to go to his office "with a skirt or a button-down shirt that is easy to take off."

She added: "He would also touch me using force, reaching the point of sexual offences. He was very brutal. When he didn't get what he wanted, he used force. He would phone me even from overseas and tell me that he dreams of me. He told me that when he is with his wife Gila he dreams about me... I hoped that by asking him this would put an end to it, but it didn't help. His reaction was to exploit my position until I was forced to leave the office."

Mr Katsav's travails are the most high-profile of a series of potential scandals to have dogged the political establishment this year.

The Justice Minister, Haim Ramon, resigned in August in the face of an imminent charge over forcibly kissing an 18-year-old female soldier. The Prime Minister is also facing an investigation over his personal property dealings. And Tzahi Hanegbi, another leading politician in the Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's party, Kadima, is facing possible charges of perjury, bribery and fraud.

The crisis over the presidency - an office which though largely ceremonial commands considerable respect and includes power to pardon convicted criminals and the theoretical post-election duty to invite a leading party to form a government - partly overshadowed Mr Olmert's speech at the Knesset's opening session. Mr Olmert used the speech to call on the Lebanese Prime Minister, Fuad Siniora, to hold "face to face" talks with him "to bring peace to our peoples" in the wake of this summer's five-week war. Mr Siniora's office declared that he had "announced more than once that Lebanon will be the last Arab country to sign peace with Israel".

Donald Macintyre will be speaking at Centre Forum's 'Britain and broader Middle East' conference on 4 November. To book tickets please visit www.centreforum.org

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