TEL AVIV, Oct. 16 (JTA) — When Israeli police recommended that President Moshe Katsav be charged with rape and sexual assault just hours ahead of the opening of the Knesset’s winter session, lawmakers were at a loss. Should they stand to greet Katsav when he walked in? Would some lawmakers sit down or leave the Knesset floor in protest? Would others jeer and hiss?
Police say Katsav, 60, should be charged with raping two women and with fraud. The president, who has refused to step down from office, could face up to 16 years in prison if charged and convicted.
Now that police have issued their recommendation, the decision of whether to charge Katsav will be up to Attorney General Menachem Mazuz. If charges are pressed, they would constitute the most serious ever leveled against an Israeli leader.
The suspense at the Knesset on Monday ended when Katsav, who has insisted on attending official events throughout the course of the investigation, bowed to pressure and let a Knesset session open without a president for the first time since its founding.
The lawmakers’ reaction and commentary in the media signify a possible change in the Israeli attitude toward sexual harassment. After years where sexual innuendo often crossed the line into harassment and even assault, especially in institutions such as government and the army, women in recent years seem to be speaking out more.
The main reason is that the law now protects them better. In the case of a rape accusation, the accuser no longer has to prove that force was used: It’s sufficient for legal purposes to prove the absence of consent and full sexual intercourse.
The Israeli rumor mill long has been full of gossip about senior politicians and army officers having affairs, but none was ever charged with as serious a sex crime as the one of which Katsav is accused.
Israel’s first sexual harassment law was passed following the trial of another major political figure, Yitzhak Mordechai, a defense minister who was convicted of sexually assaulting and harassing two women during his years in the army, where he reached the rank of general. He was given an 18-month suspended sentence.
Most recently and dramatically, there have been the high-profile cases of Katsav and Justice Minister Haim Ramon. Ramon is on temporary leave as police investigate charges that he kissed a young soldier against her will this summer.
Police have recommend that Katsav be put on trial on charges of raping two women, committing indecent acts by force and indecent acts without consent and sexual harassment.
Police say evidence also shows that Katsav listened to staff members’ telephone conversations, committed fraud and breach of trust, harassed a witness and obstructed the course of justice. The investigation continues into those issues, and no recommendation has been made on whether to indict on those accusations.
Mazuz is expected to take weeks or even months to review the evidence before making a decision.
Katsav, who was at the tail end of an seven-year presidential term, repeatedly has denied the accusations against him and told Israeli media that political foes have orchestrated the complaints.
If he does not resign voluntarily or is not impeached by a vote of at least 90 Knesset members, Katsav cannot be indicted while in office. In that case, an indictment would have to wait until his term ends in nine months.
Education Minister Yuli Tamir is among the many Knesset members from across party lines calling on Katsav to step down so as “not to disgrace the office of the presidency and of the Knesset.”
The complaints against Katsav deemed worthy of indictments were filed by two women who worked for him, one while Katsav was president and the other while he was tourism minister in the 1990s. In all, 10 women filed complaints against Katsav, a former Knesset member from the Likud Party.
In Monday’s Yediot Achronot, the woman who worked for Katsav in the Tourism Ministry described what she said was systematic harassment that led to rape.
“Every time I see him on television I feel nauseated,” she was quoted as saying. “This is an evil man, a very evil man. He seems innocent, but he is horrid. He is a polished politician who knows all the tricks and schemes and knows how to behave.”
The position of president is largely ceremonial in Israel, where the office is supposed to be a unifying force in a deeply divided country. But some say the Katsav case has stained the office’s prestige.
Women’s rights activists say the fact that the president can be held accountable for his actions will be a powerful example encouraging other women to step forward against those who have harassed or assaulted them.