Israeli president urged to resign - East Valley Tribune: Nation / World

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Israeli president urged to resign

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Posted: Wednesday, January 24, 2007 5:35 am

JERUSALEM - A spokesman for the Israeli parliament says President Moshe Katsav has asked to be temporarily removed from office.

Israel's politically powerful justice minister meantime led the growing chorus of calls Wednesday for Katsav to resign as charges of rape and abuse of power loom.

Attorney-General Meni Mazuz notified the president on Tuesday that he planned to indict him, but would first give Katsav, who has maintained silence since, an opportunity to plead his case before him.

Katsav, 61, has said he is innocent of assaulting the four women who have accused him. His lawyers hope to use the hearing before Mazuz to persuade him to drop his plans to press charges.

While Katsav is innocent until proven guilty, "he should not be waging the battle to prove his innocence from the president's office," Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who also serves as foreign minister, said in a statement.

"Minister Livni is convinced that resignation would be the appropriate action at this time," the statement said.

Katsav planned a news conference for Wednesday evening, and Israeli media, citing one of his attorneys, said he would propose a temporary leave of absence until Mazuz made a final decision whether to indict.

No sitting Israeli president has ever been charged with a crime.

But the Israeli public has grown accustomed to the spectacle of politicians being put on trial or tainted by corruption allegations. One former Cabinet minister is being tried in a separate sexual misconduct case, and corruption allegations have reached as high as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, now under investigation for his involvement in the sale of a government-controlled bank.

The front pages of Israeli dailies on Wednesday were plastered with pictures of Katsav and Mazuz's plan to indict. "The charge: RAPE," blared the headline of the mass-circulation Maariv.

Radio shows barely spoke of anything else as the political furor swelled.

The small opposition Meretz party took action to launch impeachment proceedings. Twenty lawmakers need to sign a petition for parliament to convene an impeachment debate, and by early afternoon Wednesday, 30 legislators had already signed on, Meretz lawmaker Zehava Galon said.

"If the president doesn't announce his resignation tonight, we will launch impeachment proceedings," Galon said.

The president enjoys immunity while in office and could be tried only after his resignation, his impeachment by three-quarters of the parliament, or the conclusion of his term, which ends this summer. Katsav had previously said he would step down if indicted.

The allegation that Katsav used his position as Israel's ceremonial head of state to force himself on his female employees has left the nation reeling.

"It is a sad day for the state of Israel," said lawmaker Benny Elon, who called on Katsav to resign to spare the nation further trauma.

Many Israelis say the enormity of the scandal has already tarnished the presidency beyond repair.

The office was once filled by Zionist legends and revered statesmen, but has lost esteem in recent years.

Katsav's predecessor, the outspoken war hero turned peacemaker Ezer Weizman, resigned in 2000 after the attorney general ruled he had improperly accepted more than $300,000 in gifts from a French millionaire. Weizman was never indicted.

Katsav had a far less lofty resume than his predecessors. He had been a low-level Cabinet minister and a Likud Party stalwart when the parliament chose him to be president in 2000 in a shocking upset over Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres, after a revered rabbi swung votes by saying a "vision" showed him the heavens favored Katsav.

But Katsav's relatively quiet presidency was rocked last summer when one of his female employees accused him of forcing her to have sex in his office. Other women came forward with similar accusations, painting the picture of a politician who had abused his power for years.

In the face of the growing scandal, Katsav disappeared from public life, hunkering down in the president's compound in Jerusalem. He even briefly removed himself from office in September instead of presiding over the inauguration of a new chief justice for the Supreme Court.

On Tuesday, Mazuz said he had collected enough evidence to indict Katsav on charges of rape, harassment, abusing his power for sex, obstructing justice and illegally distributing gifts while president and Cabinet minister.

Legal authorities said the charges could carry a sentence of more than 20 years in jail.

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