JERUSALEM — Facing possible indictment on charges of rape and sexual harassment, Israeli President Moshe Katsav on Wednesday angrily defied calls to quit but asked for a temporary leave while he fights to clear his name.
Katsav's request was unlikely to quell widespread calls for his resignation a day after Atty. Gen. 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 can rebut the charges, which involve former female staff members.
In a nationally televised speech from the president's residence, Katsav, 61, proclaimed his innocence, saying his family had for months suffered a campaign of "false and malicious" allegations, which he labeled a "media lynching."
After months of issuing only terse comments about the case, the president pumped his fist and pounded the lectern during an emotional 45-minute speech before reporters, with his wife, Gila, seated nearby. Katsav said he had never harmed anyone and promised to 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 requires the approval of a Knesset committee.
The potential charges cited by Mazuz, including an array of sex-related offenses, would be the most serious ever leveled against a top Israeli official. Katsav said he would quit if formally charged.
The allegations involve 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.
It was unclear whether lawmakers would grant Katsav a leave when a growing chorus of Israelis from across the political map was calling for his resignation. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, speaking at a conference in the coastal city of Herzliya, said Katsav could no longer carry out his duties and should go.
"This is a sad day for the state of Israel," Olmert said.
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 Wednesday's edition of the daily Yediot Aharonot. "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."
Katsav, a longtime member of the ruling Likud Party, was elected to his post by the Knesset in 2000 in an upset.