Israeli President Moshe Katsav suspended himself this week to fight sex charges, including rape, that the state’s senior law officer planned to file. But some government officials and the media said that wasn’t good enough and called for the president’s immediate resignation or ouster.
“In the present situation it is impossible to educate students to respect the presidential institution and ask them to hang pictures in every school of a president charged with grave offenses,” Education Minister Yuli Tamir was quoted as saying.
She added that Katsav must resign immediately so as “not to embarrass the students and the people in the education system.”
Israel’s presidency is largely a ceremonial position, with top political power going to the prime minister.
The headline in Israel’s top selling newspaper, Yediot Achronot, blared, “Resign.”There was also a move in the Knesset to gather enough support to remove Katsav from office.
Attorney General Menachem Mazuz intends to indict the 61-year-old married father of five on a slew of charges, including raping a female employee when he was tourism minister, sexual harassment, abuse of power, breach of trust and accepting bribes.
The charges are the most serious ever to be brought against a senior Israeli official and come after a months-long police investigation during which Katsav was questioned extensively.
Mazuz said he would delay the filing pending a hearing at which Katsav, who says he is innocent, would be given a chance to defend himself. Should Mazuz file the indictment, a three-judge panel in Jerusalem would hear the case. There is no jury system in Israel. A unanimous verdict is not necessary.
“It is a black day,” said Colette Avital, a Labor Party member of the Knesset and one of three candidates hoping to succeed Katsav when his seven-year term expires in July, or before. “Just look at what this does to the regular Israeli citizen who had one place to identify with, and what it does to the Israeli image abroad.”
Some officials have called for the position of president to be abolished, but Avital said she did not believe that was likely to happen immediately.
“It would mean cancellation of a basic law and a change of the system of government,” she said. “It is not going to happen within [the coming] months.”
Although allegations of sexual wrongdoing have been swirling around Katsav for many months, he has enjoyed some surprising support, according to Gabriel Sheffer, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“There are quite a number of Israelis who respect the president,” he said. “During the [High] Holidays, so many people came to his residence and blessed him. But another part of the Israeli public will be glad he is to be indicted and want him to resign.”
Although the Knesset speaker, Dalia Itzik, 54, would become the acting president should Katsav step aside or resign — the first woman to hold that post — many analysts believe she lacks the political strength to win the election to succeed him. The president is elected by the 120-member Knesset.
In addition to Avital, former Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin and Vice Premier Shimon Peres are seeking the presidency. Sheffer said he believed Peres is best positioned to win and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has reportedly decided to back him.
Avital said she is seeking the presidency “to bring back some dignity” to the office. Katsav’s predecessor, the late Ezer Weizman, was forced to quit the presidency in 2000 for receiving about $450,000 in gifts from a French millionaire in the 1980s when Weizman was a minister.
“The one good thing about all of this,” Avital said of the Katsav scandal, “is that it shows that everybody is equal in front of the law — that the legal system in Israel is above all considerations. At least that is our consolation.”