Israel President Asks for Temporary Leave From Office
By Alisa Odenheimer and Gwen Ackerman
Jan. 24 (Bloomberg) -- Israeli President Moshe Katsav asked parliament to temporarily suspend him from his duties, after the attorney general said yesterday there is sufficient evidence to charge the head of state with rape.
Katsav made the request in a letter to the head of the Knesset House Committee, Ruhama Avraham, and Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik, an official in the parliament said by telephone, requesting anonymity.
Attorney General Menachem Mazuz yesterday told Katsav's lawyers that there is evidence to indict the head of state on rape, sexual harassment, fraud, breach-of-trust and other charges. Three ministers today urged Katsav, 61, to resign, while lawmakers gathered enough signatures to begin impeachment proceedings against him.
A number of separate criminal investigations are under way against other leading Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Finance Minister Avraham Hirschson, Tax Authority director Jacky Matza, and Shula Zaken, a long-time aide to Olmert. While Israeli presidents have a mainly ceremonial role, Katsav's possible indictment heightens the perception of government corruption.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Education Minister Yuli Tamir and Public Security Minister Avi Dichter called on Katsav to step down immediately.
``From the legal viewpoint, Moshe Katsav is innocent until proven guilty, but in this case, in light of the type of charges, their seriousness, and the timing of the decision, it is more correct that his struggle to prove his innocence should not be conducted from within the residence of the president of Israel,'' Livni, who is also foreign minister, said in an e- mailed statement.
Mazuz told Katsav yesterday that he would be invited to a hearing before a final decision is made on whether to submit the indictment. The date for the hearing will be set in the next few days.
Members of Parliament won't be satisfied with Katsav's request to suspend himself from his duties, said Ron Shapira, a law professor at Bar-Ilan University.
``I don't believe the Knesset will be so generous as to allow him to declare temporary incapacity until the hearing,'' Shapira said.
The opposition Meretz party today succeeded in collecting 30 signatures, more than the minimum 20 needed, to open an impeachment procedure in the Knesset House Committee, party spokeswoman Idit Shabtay-Sidis said.
Meretz, which has five seats in parliament, plans to submit the impeachment motion unless the president announces his resignation at a planned press conference at his official residence in Jerusalem at 7:30 p.m. local time.
``It cannot be that someone with such a serious indictment against him can continue to hold on to the presidency,'' the spokeswoman said by telephone, reading from a written statement.
If Katsav removes himself from office, Itzik will temporarily take on his duties.
Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres, former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, and two members of the Knesset, Reuven Rivlin of the Likud Party and Colette Avital of Labor, are all possible candidates along with Itzik to replace Katsav permanently, the newspaper Haaretz reported today.
In order for the impeachment proceedings to go forward, three-quarters of the 25 members of the Knesset House Committee must vote in favor of putting the proposal to the full parliament. A vote to impeach the president would require the support of 90 of the 120 Knesset members. Katsav would be given an opportunity before both votes to present his case to the Knesset members.
The possible rape charges are in connection with a complaint filed by a woman who worked for Katsav when he was tourism minister from 1998-1999, the attorney general said yesterday. If convicted, Katsav could be sentenced to a maximum of 16 years in prison, and a minimum of four years.
Other possible charges, relating to sexual harassment, indecent acts without consent, and sexual intercourse committed through the exploitation of authority, are related to complaints filed by three employees who worked for Katsav during his presidency.
Mazuz also found sufficient evidence to indict Katsav on charges of fraud and breach of trust, in connection with private gifts purchased with public funds, as well as disruption of legal proceedings and harassment of a witness.
He did not find sufficient evidence to indict Katsav on wiretap charges, nor on charges relating to the use of his authority in granting pardons, as police had recommended.
Lawyers for Katsav said yesterday that the president plans to continue his struggle to prove his innocence. They also said that he would honor his commitment to remove himself from office if the attorney general reaches a final decision to press charges.
Mazuz said in October that Katsav should temporarily suspend himself from office if prosecutors issue a draft indictment against him.
The president can be forced from office only if convicted of a crime, according to Israeli law.
If he resigned, Katsav would be the second Israeli president in a row to leave office prematurely, after Ezer Weizman stepped down in 2000 following revelations that he received money from business associates without reporting it to the authorities. Katsav's term expires in July 2007.