TEL AVIV, Israel, June 29 (UPI) -- Israel's 61-year-old President Moshe Katsav resigned Friday over his alleged sex crimes and the attorney general came under fire for letting him off too lightly.
The resignation is part of a deal that provided Katsav would not be accused of rape, an alleged crime that could have landed him in jail for 16 years. Instead he will be charged with much lesser offences for which the prosecution will seek a suspended jail sentence. The deal was signed Thursday and Attorney General Menachem Mazuz' decisions came under a torrent of criticism from retired judges, women's rights organizations, politicians and the media.
"The difference between a president accused of rape and a president who admits to an indecent act ... screams to high heavens," said the Yediot Aharonot newspaper in its lead article.
"There cannot be a president who is a half rapist, a quarter rapist or one-tenth of a rapist. A person's fate, the (presidency's) dignity, the state's stature in the eyes of its own public are not child's play," correspondent Nahum Barnea wrote.
Last July, Katsav summoned Mazuz to complain that a former secretary, hitherto identified only as "A.", was trying to extort him. Mazuz ordered a police investigation and the tables turned. "A.", who Thursday revealed her first name is Orli, accused Katsav of having raped her three or four times.
She told reporters of how the president allegedly exposed himself in front of her and she alleged he eventually raped her. Katsav vehemently denied her accusations and his lawyers convinced Mazuz that in court they might succeed in refuting her allegations. Mazuz dropped that charge.
Meanwhile police investigators interviewed nine other women who complained about Katsav. The statute of limitations applied to some accounts but there was "A.B.", who had been his secretary when he was tourism minister. She too alleged he had raped her.
Mazuz' initial draft charge sheet accused Katsav of rape and prohibited intercourse. The president hired some of Israel's best and most expensive lawyers and they managed to change the case.
Under the plea bargain agreement, Katsav would admit he caressed and hugged "A.B." and "in some instances" tried to kiss her mouth. He also is expected to be charged with hugging another secretary, identified only as "L.I." and kissing her neck on his birthday.
Mazuz told reporters the agreement provides Katsav will compensate "A.B." with some $8,250 and "L.I." with $3,500.
Plea bargains are common in Israel. Retired Judge Amnon Straschnow said 85 percent of the cases end in such agreements, but why did Mazuz agree to such easy terms?
He told reporters the case was "very complex ... with significant problems of evidence that could affect the prospects of a conviction."
The plea bargain agreement provides that Katsav would admit to "a series of acts in more than one woman," Mazuz said.
Retired judges criticized Mazuz for dropping the severe charges even though no new evidence has emerged to refute his initial case. With several women complaining against Katsav, the chances of frame-up are very small, said Hebrew University law Professor Mordechai Kremnitzer. Since Katsav flatly denies everything, this was precisely the case that should have gone to court.
There was a broader aspect to all this. Many rape victims are reluctant to file complaints, relive the event and withstand a merciless cross-examinations in court.
"If they learn that they would quickly lose their ability for a just trial, that there are deals with the (accused) ... many women would not want to complain," said Education Minister Yuli Tamir.
The Association of Civil Rights in Israel said it was "apprehensive of the dangerous message" to female victims of sex offences "who considered the state institutions a secure address to protect their bodies and dignity."
By erasing their complaints, "You help present them as being licentious and liars. ... You trade their dignity and the prosecution must not do that," argued Israel Radio's legal commentator Moshe Negbi.
Israel's presidency is a largely ceremonial position. The president is expected to be a unifying figure in a country of sharp divisions, a symbol of dignity. He is legally considered the head of the state.
Mazuz did not want to tarnish that institution. He said he feared a lengthy trial "with very unflattering headlines in Israel and abroad, about the state of Israel and the presidency."
Some commentators justified this argument. People from Timbuktu to Tierra del Fuego "who do not have the foggiest idea where Israel is ... would remember one thing: That the president of the Jewish state raped his secretaries," wrote Eitan Haber in Yediot Aharonot.
All over the world people would joke about the case, the president and the state, he added. In an adjoining commentary Yair Lapid wrote that if Katsav had cared so much, "he should have kept his zipper closed."
These considerations are not more important than women's dignity and rights, said the association.
Katsav still insists on his total innocence and his son, Israel, said the family decided he should sign the deal to avoid a two-year nerve-wracking trial.
His resignation will go into effect Monday. Only then, when he no longer has sweeping immunity, can the prosecution file its charge sheet. The court is not bound to endorse the agreed suspended sentence, though Supreme Court decisions say it should unless there are special reasons not to do so. The offenses to which Katsav agreed to plead guilty carry a maximum seven-year jail term, so he is not yet out of the woods.
Israeli judges are independent professionals, appointed for life so that they can maintain their independence. There is no jury. If the judges share the widespread criticism of the deal, the picture of an ex-president in chains is still possible.