Facing protests, president skips Knesset session

The Baltimore Sun

JERUSALEM -- Israel's president, dogged by rape allegations and calls for his resignation, sat out the opening of the parliament's winter session yesterday after police recommended he be indicted.

Some members of the Knesset had threatened to boycott the ceremony or to stay in their seats if President Moshe Katsav took part in it. It is customary for lawmakers to rise as the president, whose post is largely ceremonial, takes his place in the gallery seats reserved for dignitaries.

Katsav, who has denied the accusations, decided to skip the session after police recommended Sunday that prosecutors indict him on rape and other sexual misconduct charges involving former female employees.

Investigators also recommended to Attorney General Meni Mazuz that Katsav be charged with tapping staff members' phones and using public money to buy gifts.

Mazuz is expected to decide in two to three weeks whether to issue an indictment.

The police recommendations gave new energy to a scandal that has kept Katsav in the news for months after a former employee in the president's office accused him of forcing her to have sex.

Other women who formerly worked for Katsav stepped forward with allegations of sexual harassment. Police recommended a rape charge in one other case, that of a former staff member when Katsav was Israel's tourism minister.

Katsav, 60, who has a drab but relatively clean image, says the accusations were part of an attempt to blackmail him. The longtime member of the conservative Likud Party has accused political rivals of seeking to undermine him.

Political analysts say that the damage had been done and that Katsav, whose job largely is to project the nation's honor at home and abroad, has little choice but to step down. In Israel, political power rests in the hands of the prime minister.

"The man Moshe Katsav is innocent as long as it has not been proven otherwise. But the man is one thing and the president another," columnist Nahum Barnea wrote in yesterday's editions of the daily Yediot Aharonot. "President Moshe Katsav cannot continue in his position much longer."

The president's lawyer said Katsav probably would resign if indicted.

"If an indictment is presented, then the president will not try to close any deals with the justice department," the attorney, Zion Amir, told Israel radio. "He will reach his conclusions and probably resign. There is no other choice."

Katsav's brother, Lior, accused police yesterday of shoddy work and bias, saying the female accusers came forward only under pressure from police and Israeli journalists.

Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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