Ex-Israeli general guilty in sex assaults on two subordinates

Mordechai verdict hailed as big advancement for women's rights in Israel

March 22, 2001|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Yitzhak Mordechai, a decorated former general and Cabinet minister, was convicted yesterday of sexually assaulting two female subordinates in a case seen as marking the end of an era when bosses could freely exploit power and position to gain sexual favors.

The verdict shattered the dynamic political prospects of a career military man once viewed as a pillar of integrity and recently considered as a potential prime minister. Women's rights activists said it will embolden women to file complaints about sexual offenses on the job without fear of punishment.

"It's going to send a clear message to women that, whoever the offender is, you don't have to take his rank into [account]," said Yael Dayan, a member of parliament who sponsored legislation in 1998 to outlaw sexual harassment. "Don't be afraid if someone is high up and has got seniority."

While the Israeli public is awakening to the crime of sexual harassment, the campaign has faced two obstacles - a prevalent culture of machismo rooted in the military and conservative religious opposition to expanding women's rights.

Young women used to be particularly vulnerable in the military, in a nation where service is compulsory for both sexes. But the army tackled the problem before other government institutions, said Dayan, daughter of Moshe Dayan, one of Israel's most celebrated generals.

"The army renewed itself with younger people, who internalized the law and its meaning," she said. That has not been the case in the civilian-run Defense Ministry, where upper echelons are staffed with older men "who benefit from their rank and position from the time they were in the military." It remains "the No. 1 ministry" for sexual offenses, Dayan said.

The scandal broke when a 23-year-old woman who had worked for Mordechai when he was transportation minister complained that he had pushed her onto a couch and put his hand under her blouse. But the three judges in the case ignored her testimony in reaching their verdict, citing inconsistencies.

But her complaint triggered a police investigation in which two other women came forward, and whose accounts the court believed.

One was a 23-year-old army officer who worked for Mordechai when the then-major general headed the Northern Command in the early 1990s. He invited her to a cafe. When they were alone in his car, he stopped in a forest and leaned over, pressing his body against her, she said. He kissed and hugged her, holding her head. She objected verbally and pushed him away. He dropped her off in a town square, forcing her to make her way back to the base along a dark road, past a cemetery and barking dogs.

In another incident, he offered a woman a ride to her home south of Tel Aviv, but stopped at his house along the way. She testified that he went into a bathroom and emerged in a towel. He pushed her down, hugged her, tried to unfasten her blouse and trousers, and began to rub against her. She slipped away and fled, getting Mordechai's driver to take her home. Along the way, she stopped and threw up.

The woman, who was 29 and married, said she had approached Mordechai about a job in 1996, and he invited her to his home. During a discussion over coffee, he thrust himself on her, putting his hands inside her blouse.

"He stopped after I told him he was a maniac," she testified, and then they were interrupted by a phone call.

When the police investigation began, Mordechai was a widely respected figure in the government, a strapping, firm-voiced ex-military man regarded as a steady, moderate influence in security affairs.

The son of Jews from Iraqi Kurdistan who came to Israel in 1949, Mordechai achieved fame when he was falsely accused of beating two terrorists to death after a bus hijacking, according to the newspaper Haaretz. Later, it emerged that he had been framed by the Shin Bet security service.

Leaving the army and entering politics in 1995, he joined the Likud Party and became defense minister in Benjamin Netanyahu's government the next year.

Breaking with Netanyahu, he mounted his own campaign for prime minister in 1999 as leader of the Center Party. He dropped from the race shortly before the election, boosting the chances of the main challenger, Ehud Barak, who subsequently named him transportation minister. He resigned from the Cabinet when charges were filed against him last May, but kept his seat in the Knesset.

A haggard-looking Mordechai, 56, faced the news cameras after yesterday's verdict was read, looking as though he had lost weight and spirit amid the yearlong probe and trial, during which his wife left him.`The court acquitted me on the central and principal charge that sparked the entire process," he told reporters. "I intend to pursue with all my might until my soul expires, by means of all possible legal recourse, to prove my innocence, and I believe that I will do so."

As he left the court, a group of demonstrators carrying placards chanted, "Sexual harassment is an offense. What part of `no' haven't you understood so far?"

Shortly after, he announced that he was taking a leave from parliament until his appeals are heard. A sentencing hearing is set April 18.

The verdict, said Yehudith Naot, a member of parliament from the centrist Shinui party, "is a symbol and a sign of a new era in Israel. The male chauvinism that originated in the army is no longer valid and is not allowed by society."

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