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Analysis: Ex-minister convicted over kiss

By JOSHUA BRILLIANT, UPI Israel Correspondent

TEL AVIV, Israel, Jan. 31 (UPI) -- Three Israeli judges Wednesday unanimously convicted former minister Haim Ramon of an indecent act for having kissed a female soldier. The decision will force Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to make a more extensive Cabinet reshuffle and has prompted calls to amend laws regarding sexual harassment. Several Knesset members maintain the current laws are too harsh.

Ramon's judges -- two women and one man -- convicted him of "an indecent act without consent," by kissing an officer at the prime minister's office.

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The kiss, which included sticking his tongue into the woman's mouth, occurred last June 12, the day Hezbollah crossed the border and kidnapped two soldiers. The Cabinet was about to convene to discuss Israel's reaction and the 22-year-old officer asked Ramon to have their picture taken together. She stood beside him, hugged him and later he kissed her.

The Tel Aviv Magistrate Court judges said they believed the woman, who may be identified only as "H," had said the hug was just "posing for the camera."

She addressed him as "minister," and it is inconceivable she would be intimate with him, or want to flirt with him, in the photographer's presence, the judges said. They were particularly impressed by her statement that, "To cuddle and kiss him is not normal." He is 56 and she is 22.

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Moreover she passed a lengthy cross-examination with dignity, the judges said.

Ramon choked with tears at the witness stand but, "Minimized his responsibility ... and distorted the facts ...

"It was not an innocent kiss on a cheek or a forehead, expressing warmth but a kiss that has all the elements of a sex offense," they ruled.

Sentencing is usually deferred to a later session after hearing character witnesses.

Ramon intends to appeal the decision. It is a difficult task since courts of appeal usually trust the lower court's impression of the witnesses' credibility. In this case the verdict was mainly based on the fact the judges unanimously believed "H" and not Ramon.

Nevertheless, attorney Sasi Ghez, who specializes in criminal cases, said Ramon has a chance. The judges failed to appreciate Ramon's "subjective assessment that the soldier wanted the kiss," he said.

Olmert, who is contemplating a Cabinet reshuffle, waited for the trial's outcome. He is Ramon's personal friend and would like to see him in the Cabinet table, but the conviction rules that out.

This means Olmert will have to appoint a new justice minister, as well as ministers of welfare and science, culture and sports. He has to find a ministerial portfolio for Ghaleb Majadele, the first Arab to join the Cabinet, and give the Russian-immigrant party, Israel Beitenu, another Cabinet seat. He might have to find a new interior minister if he gives the justice portfolio to Interior Minister Ronnie Bar-On.

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The most difficult task would be replacing Defense Minister Amir Peretz. Peretz, a professional trade unionist who heads the Labor party, failed as defense minister and Olmert was him out of that ministry.

Public opinion polls show that even within Labor, Peretz is last in the race for party leadership. Party elections are due in the spring.

Peretz does not intend to move. His spokesman Tal Sandroni said Peretz is staying, "To prepare the (Israel Defense Forces) for the next challenges."

Hebrew University Political Science Prof. Avraham Diskin told United Press International he believes Labor Party leaders would cooperate with Olmert in removing Peretz. They realize Peretz is hurting their entire party by holding on to the wrong job.

Olmert might try and tempt Peretz with another post. If Peretz rejects that, Olmert would have to decide whether to fight it out and possibly lose his main coalition partner, give up or wait a few weeks until a commission of inquiry studying the Lebanon war publishes its interim recommendations. That committee, headed by retired Judge Eliyahu Winograd, could force Peretz out.

Wednesday's decision met a mixed reaction. Israel Radio's legal commentator, Moshe Negbi welcomed it for providing women, especially in hierarchical institutions such as an army, with, "Solid defense ... against sexual abuse by their superiors."

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Talia Eisenberg of the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, said women are often afraid people will not believe them. The verdict is, "An important message that it is possible to talk about it."

However several Knesset members want to amend the law.

Amira Dotan, a female Knesset member of Ramon's Kadima Party, said he is good looking, sweet and is used to the fact women want to be near him. "His downfall is not because of (his) bad intention," she said.

Yuval Steinitz, a member of the Likud opposition party, advocated a reexamination of the laws regarding indecent acts and sexual harassment. "A sexual attack should be what we all intuitively believe (it) ... to be" and not something (like Ramon's kiss that) that seems to lack a criminal intent and was, "A misunderstanding of signals between one person and another."

Diskin predicted Wednesday's decision might even harm the entire judiciary.

"There is a very strange phenomenon," he said. When Ramon was justice minister, he intended to restrain the judiciary's powers. He was put on trial. A decade ago another independent minded justice minister, Yaakov Neeman, also faced criminal charges. Neeman resigned, was tried and acquitted, but did not return to the Justice Ministry.

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Israel should be proud of its courts and investigators who expose even minor offenses. But the courts have assumed too many powers that the legislators did not give them and are inefficient, Diskin said.

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