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Israeli president requests leave over sex scandal

Resisting massive pressure to submit his immediate resignation, Katsav pledged to resign only as soon as a final decision was made on an indictment against him.

india Updated: Jan 25, 2007 11:27 IST

After a more than six-month, in-depth investigation into whether he sexually harassed a series of former female employees, Israeli President Moshe Katsav said on Wednesday he was temporarily stepping down.

Resisting massive pressure to submit his immediate resignation, Katsav pledged to resign only as soon as a final decision was made on an indictment against him.

Furious, emotional and adamant, Katsav said: "I did not commit any of the acts attributed to me."

He accused the Israeli media of waging a "witch hunt" against him and having "spilt my blood for the past five months".

"I am the subject of one of the worst persecutions in the history of Israel," he said. "I will not succumb to blackmail. I will not succumb to lies and forgery."

He has insisted that the women who filed complaints against him were acting out of an "urge for vengeance" because he sacked some of them and refused others the jobs they had requested.

After saying he would resign if an indictment was handed down against him, he pointed his finger at the reporters in the room, and charged, "You have broken all the rules of ethical journalism."

A banner headline in the Yediot Ahronot paper on Wednesday screamed "Resign!" alongside a portrait of a grim Katsav, a day after Israel's attorney general recommended the president be indicted on a host of sexual offences against four former employees, including rape, which carries a maximum sentence of 16 years.

A headline in the rival Ma'ariv daily read "The charge: rape."

The affair broke in July, when Katsav complained that a former secretary identified only as "A" tried to blackmail him. She reciprocated by filing a complaint of sexual harassment against him.

Israel's Channel 2 television last autumn broadcast a leaked tape of a conversation between the president and "A" that backed his claim.

In the July 2 conversation, "A" could be heard promising Katsav she would destroy tapes of conversations that she had recorded between the president and herself, if he paid her $200,000.

Immediately after the tape's publication, Israeli media quoted a Katsav associate as admitting the president had had a consensual affair with "A," that would have served as grounds for her alleged extortion attempt.

But the married father of five - and grandfather of six - whose wife Gila has stood by him throughout the scandal, has publicly continued to vehemently deny having had any sexual relations with the woman.

During the police investigation, however, in which police questioned dozens of former employees, nine other women came forward and filed similar sexual harassment complaints against Katsav.

Israel's attorney general recommended an indictment on the basis of four of the complaints, saying one of the others lacked evidence and the statute of limitations had passed for the remaining five.

The attorney general is to make his final decision after a verbal hearing in which Katsav is to give his version of events.

The most serious allegation - in which he is accused of raping a former female employee - allegedly occurred while Katsav served as tourism minister in 1998 and 1999.

Regarding the main complainant "A", Katsav faces indictment on charges of compelling sexual intercourse by abusing his authority as her employer between 2003-04.

He is also suspected of forcing sexual acts of a lesser degree on two other former employees of the president's residence.

Even if the prosecution fails to prove rape, the lesser sexual harassment offences are punishable by up to two and three years in prison.

The 61-year-old's rise to prominence was as impressive as his fall has been spectacular.

Born in Iran as the son of a janitor at a Jewish school, Katsav emigrated to Israel at the age of five with his family.

They stayed in an immigrant transit camp in the south that later evolved into his hometown of Kiryat Malahi.

The 11-member family spent its first years in the camp in a tent and then in a one-and-a-half room hut.

His father took on low-paying jobs, such as worker in a linen factory. Katsav finished primary and high school there to become the first student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem from the development town.

He became politically active at university with the precursor of the hardline Likud party and became Israel's youngest mayor at 24, serving in the post at Kiryat Malahi.

He also became the first person raised in a development town to be elected to the Knesset in 1977.

He later served as labour, transport and tourism minister on behalf of the Likud.

In August 2000, the Knesset elected him over favourite, veteran statesman Shimon Peres to become Israel's eighth president.

Calls for Katsav's resignation have grown since the attorney general's recommendation and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Wednesday lent his voice to those calling for Katsav to step down.

"Under these circumstances, there is no doubt in my heart that the president can no longer fulfill his duties and he must leave his post," Olmert told a conference in Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv.

First Published: Jan 25, 2007 11:26 IST