Israel's presidency tainted by scandal

JERUSALEM -- During the Jewish holiday of Sukkot next week, President Moshe Katsav is scheduled to hold an open house at his official residence to greet the public. A few days later, he is to preside over the opening of the winter session of the Israeli parliament.

But the normally festive events are expected to be awkward affairs, because Katsav is under police investigation for suspected sexual harassment and the possible rape of a former secretary in his residence.


For years considered a colorless "Mr. Clean," Katsav, 61, is at the center of a scandal that has tainted the presidency, a ceremonial post that is the highest office in Israel and whose holder represents the nation in official functions at home and abroad.

Katsav, who is married with five children, is being investigated about accusations by the former secretary that he forced her to have sex, claims echoed by two other women who have since lodged similar complaints with police.


Katsav has denied any wrongdoing and has accused his former employee of trying to blackmail him with a false charge.

For Israelis, the matter has provided a juicy distraction from the daily grim reports on the aftermath of the war in Lebanon and the continuing conflict with the Palestinians.

Tabloids have published leaked transcripts of taped conversations between Katsav and his former secretary, next to photos of the president and the woman, her face blurred to protect her privacy.

A longtime politician in the rightist Likud party and a former Cabinet minister, Katsav had been widely considered a bland figure, serving a largely unremarkable term as president. The scandal is the worst to hit the Israeli presidency, raising questions about the need for the largely symbolic office, which is supposed to be above politics but has sometimes become a political football.

Doron Rosenblum, a satirist, wrote recently in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the Katsav scandal had "irretrievably cracked the facade of 'the president's residence' - mainly expressed through walking in a suit on carpets with a smile. ... Never has the facade of 'presidential dignity' looked more hollow and pathetic."

A few weeks ago, police investigators raided the presidential residence, confiscating computers and documents, an unprecedented event. Investigators later questioned Katsav at his residence for hours.

Yet, Katsav has continued his official duties with virtually no interruption.

Last week, he swore in a new deputy chief justice of the Supreme Court, though he did absent himself from the swearing in of a new chief justice, a move his aides said was meant to avoid deflecting attention from the installation of Israel's senior judge.


Katzav also went last week with his wife to Ukraine to represent Israel at ceremonies marking the 65th anniversary of the massacre of Jews by the Nazis at Babi Yar. However, Israeli news reports said the usually accessible president avoided journalists as he moved between official functions.

During the recent Jewish High Holy Days, a traditional time of soul-searching that culminates with the Yom Kippur fast, one newspaper cartoon portrayed Katsav as a desperate penitent next to a hapless wife.

Katsav's compromised position has brought calls for him to step down.

"The president should immediately stop representing Israel abroad and in the Jewish world," wrote Shahar Ilan, a columnist for Haaretz. "He embarrasses us enough inside Israel."

Joel Greenberg writes for the Chicago Tribune.