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A high-level call for Katsav to step aside

Israel's president may have a chilling effect on his rape case by staying in office, the attorney general says.

October 30, 2006|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Israeli President Moshe Katsav, clinging defiantly to his office two weeks after police recommended his indictment on rape charges, came under pressure Sunday from the country's top law enforcement official to step down.

In a nonbinding brief to the Supreme Court, Atty. Gen. Menachem Mazuz said Katsav should suspend himself from his largely ceremonial post until the investigation was completed.

Mazuz said he was concerned that Katsav's refusal to step aside was impeding the case, discouraging witnesses who work in the president's office from coming forward to testify.

The 60-year-old president responded with a renewed claim of "righteousness and innocence." A written statement from his office indicated that he would remain on the job for now.

Police say there is evidence that Katsav forced two female subordinates to have sex -- one who was employed in the president's office and one who worked for him when he was minister of Tourism. Several other women had brought complaints against him for sexual misconduct.

The police also recommended that Katsav be charged with fraud, illegal wiretapping and other crimes.

Until now, Mazuz had proceeded cautiously with the allegations, among the most serious that have ever been brought against a sitting Israeli national leader.

The attorney general has said that his decision whether to indict the president is still weeks away. But his statement Sunday, in response to a Supreme Court inquiry, was a sign that he viewed the case against Katsav as a strong one.

"The more serious the allegations and the farther along in the process, the obligation increases for the president to take the step of temporarily suspending his term," the attorney general said.

Katsav is immune from prosecution as long as he holds office. Only parliament has the authority to remove him, which requires an affirmative vote by 90 of its 120 members.

The attorney general said parliament "should think about using its prerogatives depending on the path that the president decides to take." Several members of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, said Sunday that they would try to muster the 20 votes necessary to start an impeachment inquiry.

Since the police announced their charges, Katsav has curtailed some of his activities. He and his wife have stopped appearing in public except when required by protocol. He has withdrawn from his biggest project of the year: setting up a forum for leading Jewish intellectuals, community leaders and philanthropists.

But he has steadfastly maintained that he is the victim of a plot by political enemies. "Sooner or later it will be proven that the allegations ... are false stories," Sunday's presidential statement said.

Katsav's attorney, Zion Amir, noted Sunday that the investigation had been underway for four months. "If everything were so simple and clear-cut, a decision should have been reached by now," he said.

The case has underscored the Israeli public's disenchantment with its leaders in the wake of the country's inconclusive summer war in Lebanon against Hezbollah guerrillas.

Several other leaders, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, face possible inquiries for corruption, cronyism or misconduct in office.

State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss has recommended that prosecutors investigate whether Olmert broke the law in naming several political allies to a small-business agency while he was the Trade and Industry minister in 2004. Lindenstrauss also is looking into allegations that Olmert paid a below-market price for a Jerusalem home in exchange for his influence.

Olmert has denied wrongdoing in both instances.

On Sunday, the Justice Ministry said police had begun investigating a third case, in which Olmert allegedly promoted bids by two businessmen to buy an Israeli bank when he was Finance minister in 2005. As in the previous cases, any action by a prosecutor would depend on police findings.

Olmert's office did not comment on the latest case.

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boudreaux@latimes.com

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