JERUSALEM, Jan. 25 (UPI) -- In a voice sometimes choking with emotion and sometimes combative and forceful, President Moshe Katsav vehemently denied having raped and performed other sexual offences.
Katsav invited reporters to his residence in Jerusalem Wednesday, and for 50 minutes blasted the attorney general, the police and the media. "A venomous, terrible, unprecedented campaign based on deceitful despicable information" led Attorney General Menahem Mazuz to consider pressing criminal charges, he said.
Mazuz Tuesday said he was "considering" criminal charges and gave the president and his lawyers a last chance to convince him not to do so. His announcement prompted calls for Katsav's resignation, or dismissal. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that under the circumstances "the president cannot continue to fulfill his functions and will have to leave."
Justice Minister Zipi Livni said "resignation is becoming" and Public Security Minister Avi Dichter concurred. Several Knesset (Parliament) members were collecting signatures for his dismissal. The Knesset can sack a president, after a long process, if 90 members in the 120-seat legislature vote to do that.
In the meantime, the Knesset House Committee Thursday approved his leave of absence upon Katzav's request.
The 61-year-old president had started the ball rolling last July when he summoned Mazuz and complained that his former chief of bureau, who may be identified only as "A," was trying to extort him.
Mazuz ordered a police inquiry. "A" was questioned and alleged that Katsav had raped her. The tables turned and police focused on Katsav's alleged offences. Ten women complained against him, but because some of those complaints are old, the attorney general focused on four cases.
Mazuz said he had "sufficient prima facie evidence" to charge the president with raping one woman, also called "A," who had worked in the Tourism Ministry when he was the minister. Katsav allegedly had "prohibited intercourse" with the first "A" who headed the president's bureau.
The Haaretz newspaper suggested Katsav is not accused of having raped her probably because employees had heard her say she had an affair with him. Even if it was an affair, Katsav allegedly broke the law that prohibits a person from taking advantage of his authority.
The president performed "indecent acts" against two more employees, Mazuz alleged. Rape carries a maximum 16-year jail sentence.
In the "hearing" offered Katsav, Mazuz said he would be "open-hearted and willing, ready to be convinced...before taking the final decision."
Katsav brought his wife, Gila, and other family members to his meeting with the press and complained of "unprecedented brainwashing." Police collaborated with the media and the media did not let facts confuse it, he said.
A Channel 2 TV anchorman tried to interrupt with a question and Katsav angrily shut him up. "For six months you talked. Now I talk. If you don't like it, you can go," he snapped.
Katsav said police questioned all the women who had worked with him in the past 30 years, intimidated one witness saying, "Be careful about your family" and was indecent in questioning a former secretary who is orthodox.
"I shall fight to death until my justice is proven," he declared.
Katsav said he had fired one of the four women referred to in the planned charge sheet and that he had testimonies that two women had said they would take revenge. Some of the women had asked to work for him again and were refused "because I knew they were not suitable," he said.
Retired police commander Amnon Shealtiel told Channel 1 TV there seemed to be no forensic evidence to back the charges against Katsav, so a trial's outcome would depend on whose testimonies the court believes. That is why the defense attorneys will try to undermine the prosecution witnesses' credibility, at least to raise doubts in the court's mind. In order to convict Katsav the court must be sure of his guilt beyond any reasonable doubt.
Kineret Barashi, who represents the former head of the president's bureau, said women who worked for Katsav had to write letters of appreciation to him in order to obtain his letters of recommendation. His recommendations were needed in order to get new jobs.
The law provides that while in office, "the President of the State of Israel shall not be prosecuted." Katsav said he will not insist on his immunity and that he will resign immediately if the attorney general decides to press charges.
His position is mainly ceremonial though he has the authority to pardon criminals. So far he has examined some 10,000 appeals, he said. An Israeli president is expected to be a unifying symbol and though a political hawk, Katsav was careful to steer clear of divisive issues.
However the anticipated charge sheet embarrassed Israelis. Presidents around the world had discrete lovers but did not rape their secretaries, wrote Haaretz columnist Yoel Markus. "Israel is the only country in the world whose president ...according to the stunning charge sheet ...raped, forced intercourse and performed indecent acts in female subordinates like a sex-maniac," Markus added.
With Katsav going on leave of absence, Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik will fill in. She might fall in love with the job, people might get used to her there, and if Katsav resigns or his term of offices ends, she might end up president.
Other candidates at the moment are Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Former Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, former Chief Rabbi Israel Lau and Labor Knesset Member Colette Avital.