JERUSALEM, Jan. 24 (JTA) — Israelis who thought they had seen it all after the Lebanon war and a slew of government corruption scandals are agog to find their president facing a rape indictment. Though President Moshe Katsav has denied wrongdoing, the announcement this week that Attorney General Menachem Mazuz intends to press charges prompted Katsav to step down temporarily, even as lawmakers began impeachment proceedings against him.
The scandal has sparked a squall of recrimination that suggests many in the Jewish state yearn for the sort of high-level purge they think might finally set the country straight.
“Resign” read a banner headline on the best-selling Yediot Achronot newspaper.
“Go home” the rival daily Ma’ariv pitched in.
Katsav, 61, a married father of five, faces the prospect of an indictment that includes counts of rape and sexual harassment against four female ex-employees, as well as fraud and breach of trust over allegations that he abused his executive privileges.
It’s the first time an incumbent Israeli head of state has been accused of such serious felonies. If convicted on the most serious charge, Katsav could be jailed for 16 years.
At an emotional news conference Wednesday, Katsav announced that he was declaring himself temporarily incapacitated. Though he is immune from criminal prosecution as president, Katsav told the High Court of Justice last year that if he were indicted, he would step down while the case is under way.
Mazuz reached his decision after a six-month police investigation. Considering that legal proceedings likely would last well beyond July, when Katsav’s seven-year tenure as president ends, Israeli pundits were unanimous in demanding that he resign now.
“Resignation, not temporary incapacitation or any other ruse, is what is needed now in order to save what is left of the institution of the presidency, and in order to return the scandal to its proper proportions,” Nahum Barnea wrote in Yediot. “In doing so, Moshe Katsav the man will do a great service, perhaps a final service, to Israel’s society and sanity.”
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert joined the calls for Katsav to resign, saying, “there is no doubt in my mind that the president cannot continue to fulfill his position, and he must leave the president’s residence.”
Katsav bitterly criticized the media Wednesday for what he called a “lynch” and “media court” that he said has reached every house in Israel over the past six months.
Earlier in the day, Katsav informed Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik, who will take his place for now, of his decision to step down.
His announcement came shortly after impeachment proceedings began. Earlier Wednesday, 27 lawmakers signed a petition authorizing the Knesset House Committee to prepare an impeachment motion. Ratification would require a three-quarters majority vote in the 120-person Knesset.
The presidency is a ceremonial role in Israel, so the case has no direct bearing on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, himself mired in an inquiry about his leadership of last year’s war against Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia and two police investigations into alleged graft and bribery.
But for many Israelis, it’s yet another signal that rot is deeply set in the halls of power.
A Haifa University poll found that just 7 percent of Israelis feel “great” or “very great” confidence in Katsav, while 79 percent feel “little” or “very little” confidence in him. The figures closely mirrored surveys on the plunging popularity of Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz since the Lebanon war.
Olmert had no immediate comment on Katsav’s legal travails, but Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the most senior woman in Israel’s government, left no doubt on her views.
“From a legal standpoint, Moshe Katsav the individual is indeed to be presumed innocent,” said Livni, who is also acting justice minister. “However, given the nature and gravity of the accusations in this case and the timing of the decision, it would be more appropriate for him to promote his innocence from outside of the President’s House.”