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Israeli official is convicted

Ex-justice minister who kissed a female army officer is found guilty of sexual harassment.

February 01, 2007|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — The kiss lasted a few seconds. The morality play it inspired lasted more than six months, riveting Israelis and their legal system on a single question: Did she or didn't she want it?

The drama ended Wednesday when the Tel Aviv Magistrates Court ruled that a 21-year-old female army first lieutenant "did not flirt with the accused, did not initiate the kiss and did not consent to it."

With that, a three-judge panel convicted Haim Ramon, a founder of the prime minister's Kadima party and an architect of his ruling coalition, of violating Israel's sexual harassment law by committing an "indecent act" while he was justice minister.

The unanimous verdict, which could send Ramon, 56, to prison for up to three years, jolted Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's scandal-ridden government. Olmert had been confident enough of an acquittal that he was holding the justice post open for Ramon, who resigned in August to stand trial.

The impact of the ruling went beyond politics. Some legal experts called it a victory for women's rights advocates battling to redefine the boundaries in Israel between powerful men and the young women who work around them.

Others said Ramon's conviction was not deserved and would inspire an effort to soften one of the world's toughest sexual harassment laws.

Israel was already reeling from the attorney general's announcement last week that he was prepared to indict President Moshe Katsav, whose post is largely ceremonial, on charges that he had raped and sexually harassed female subordinates. Katsav, 61, is on a leave of absence and has moved out of his official residence while he fights the charges and a move in parliament to impeach him.

Olmert's center-left government is expected to survive, but scandals have shaken the public trust. The prime minister is under investigation for his role in the government's sale of a bank when he was finance minister, and a corruption inquiry focusing on the tax authority has implicated his personal secretary.

As Ramon listened to the verdict, he gazed downward, holding his head in his hands. He left quickly, without comment, but made it known later that he would appeal. He also faces a possible suspension from his parliament seat.

The incident occurred July 12, at the start of the war in Lebanon, when Ramon arrived for a Cabinet meeting in Olmert's office and the plaintiff asked him to pose with her for a photo.

She had been assigned by the army to serve as a secretary to Maj. Gen. Gadi Shamni, Olmert's top military aide. She was nearing the end of her service and was collecting souvenir photos of herself with the various officials she had met passing in and out of Olmert's office.

She and Ramon embraced as Olmert's official photographer took their picture. What happened next, after the photographer left them alone in the room, became the subject of a "he said, she said" standoff.

The plaintiff, known in court papers and the media only as H to protect her privacy, said she released her grip on Ramon and turned to leave the room. She said he pulled her back, held her cheek and planted his lips on hers, inserting his tongue in her mouth until she pulled away.

Ramon did not dispute the kiss but claimed that H had initiated it after flirting with him and inviting him to join her on a Central American vacation.

Shamni persuaded her to file a criminal complaint, and investigators debating whether to indict Ramon arranged a meeting between him and the young woman.

Israeli newspapers summarized the 80-page transcript at length for a public hungry for soap-opera details.

One exchange went to the heart of the legal issue that would involve months of trial testimony:

Ramon: "You claimed I kissed you. Did you resist?"

H: "I was in shock. I couldn't move."

Ramon: "Which means I couldn't understand that you were resisting."

H: "I was in shock."

Israel's sexual harassment law, enacted in 1998, is unusually stringent because it does not require the recipient of a kiss or other form of sexual contact to put up physical resistance to prove a lack of consent.

The judges, two women and a man, sided with H's contention that nothing she had said or done could have been reasonably interpreted by Ramon as inviting the kiss. They ruled that the act was "an explicit sex offense ... not a kiss of affection."

"This is a victory for women's autonomy over their bodies and their dignity," legal commentator Moshe Negbi said. "We do not send our daughters to the army so they may satisfy the sexual urges of men of power and authority."

But some women's rights advocates were uncomfortable with the ruling.

Shulamit Aloni, a liberal activist, said she doubted Ramon harbored any criminal intent, and she was troubled by the apparent pressure put on H by her boss to file the complaint.

Yuval Steinitz, a lawmaker from the conservative opposition Likud Party, said parliament should amend the law to "include a component of aggression" in the definition of an indecent act. "A misunderstanding between a man and a woman should not end in such a grave indictment," he said.

Yael Dayan, chief sponsor of the law, agreed that Ramon's offense stemmed from a "misunderstanding." She said the backlash over the case was "a pity because it overshadows genuinely criminal cases and may deter women from filing necessary complaints."

"This case offers a lesson to women and men," Dayan said on Israel Radio. "Women, if you're not interested, make it known. And men, don't take women by surprise. There's no need to have a lengthy discussion of every kiss in advance, but where there's no preexisting relationship, remember that there was once a crazy member of parliament named Yael Dayan who passed this law!"

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boudreaux@latimes.com

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