Israeli president defiant

Katsav denies rape, refuses to quit but asks for temporary leave

January 25, 2007|By Ken Ellingwood | Ken Ellingwood,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM -- Facing possible indictment on rape and sexual harassment charges, Israeli President Moshe Katsav angrily defied calls to quit but asked yesterday for a temporary leave while he fights to clear his name.

Katsav's request was unlikely to quell calls for his resignation a day after Attorney General Menachem Mazuz said he was prepared to indict.

Mazuz said his decision would depend on the outcome of a still-unscheduled hearing at which the president could rebut the charges, which involve former female staff members.

`False and malicious'

In a nationally televised speech from the president's residence, Katsav, 61, proclaimed his innocence, saying that his family for months had suffered a campaign of "false and malicious" allegations that he labeled a "media lynching."

After months of issuing only terse comments, the president pumped his fist and pounded the lectern during a 45-minute speech before reporters with his wife, Gila, seated nearby.

Intolerable damage

Katsav said he had not harmed anyone and promised he would prevail.

"I am innocent and will remain innocent," he said, "but the damage is intolerable and irreversible."

He did not take questions.

Earlier, Katsav asked the Knesset, or parliament, for a leave that could last up to three months. Under Israeli law, the request is subject to approval by a Knesset committee.

The potential charges cited by Mazuz, including an array of sex-related offenses, would be the most serious leveled against a top Israeli official. Katsav said he would quit if formally charged.

The charges relate to his alleged conduct toward four female subordinates. Three were employees of the president's office and one worked for Katsav when he was tourism minister during the late 1990s.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, speaking at a conference in the coastal city of Herzliya, said Katsav no longer could carry out his duties and should go. "This is a sad day for the state of Israel," Olmert said.

Impeachment

Even before Katsav's appearance, some lawmakers were gathering signatures to begin impeachment proceedings. Impeachment requires at least 90 votes in the 120-member Knesset.

To some, Katsav's departure appeared inevitable.

"The president will resign. If not today - tomorrow. If not tomorrow - the day after," political columnist Nahum Barnea wrote in yesterday's edition of the daily Yediot Aharonot newspaper. "Resignation, not temporary incapacitation or any other trick, is what is needed now in order to save what is left of the institution of the presidency."

Last fall, as the controversy raged, Katsav won a one-day leave so he would not have to take part in the swearing-in of the presiding justice of the Supreme Court.

Later, he sat out the opening of parliament's winter session, without seeking a leave, after some lawmakers threatened to stage a protest.

Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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