Thu, Jan 25, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Israeli president to take leave of absence

LOST PRESTIGE Moshe Katsav decided to temporarily step down from his post after it was announced that he would stand trial on charges of rape and corruption

AFP , JERUSALEM

Israeli President Moshe Katsav will take leave of absence after the announcement that he will be indicted on charges of rape and other sex crimes, parliamentary officials said yesterday.

The announcement falls short of meeting growing calls from politicians and the public that Katsav resign from the largely ceremonial post because of the charges, the most serious ever leveled against an Israeli leader.

"Katsav on Wednesday informed the home committee in a letter that he intended to temporarily suspend himself from office," Knesset spokesman Giora Fordis said.

The opposition Meretz party has already launched a petition to impeach the embattled president who, if convicted of rape, faces a maximum 16 years in prison.

Katsav, a married father of five, was due to address the allegations at a press conference in Jerusalem at 7:00pm, his spokeswoman said.

Attorney General Menahem Mazuz intends to indict the 61-year-old on a slew of charges, including raping a female employee when he was tourism minister, sexual harassment, abuse of power, breach of trust and accepting bribes.

"Resign," thundered a banner headline in the mass-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper.

The unprecedented action against an Israeli head of state comes amid a spate of corruption allegations against top-level politicians, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Katsav, the Jewish state's first head of state from a right-wing party, has denied the charges and vowed to fight to clear his name. He has steadfastly refused to step down during the months of investigation against him, saying he was the victim of a witch-hunt.

A final decision on the indictment, largely a formality, will be made after a hearing where Katsav will be allowed to present his case. A date has not yet been set.

But the Israeli media, politicians and the public were nearly unanimous in their opinion that the Iranian-born president should step down.

"I am convinced that resignation is the appropriate thing to do at this time," said Foreign Minister and Acting Justice Minister Tzipi Livni.

"From a legal standpoint, Moshe Katsav the individual is indeed presumed innocent," Livni said in a statement. "However, in this case, given the type of accusations, their severity and the timing of the decision, it is more appropriate for him to conduct his fight [to prove] his innocence from outside the president's residence."

Livni was herself appointed Acting Justice Minister in November, after Haim Ramon suspended himself from the post following charges of sexual harassment.

Katsav is due to be indicted with raping a woman employee at the tourism ministry where he held the top post in the late 1990s. He will face separate charges of sexually harassing three other women staff at the presidential residence in Jerusalem, as well as numerous other charges, including graft, abuse of power, breach of trust and obstructing investigations into his activities.

"He should resign as he has no right to leave us in this situation," said Meretz leader Yossi Beilin. "As a society, we have the right to tell him that he is no longer our president and that his portrait can no longer be hung in schools."

Guidon Saar of Katsav's Likud party said: "The president must resign. Period. If not, the ball will be in Knesset's court, which should fire him."

To impeach the president -- unprecedented in Israel -- 90 lawmakers in the 120-member Knesset have to approve the measure.

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