Former Israeli minister guilty of sexual misconduct

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , JERUSALEM

Fri, Feb 02, 2007 - Page 6

An Israeli court convicted former justice minister Haim Ramon on Wednesday of charges that he forcibly kissed a young female soldier in a highly publicized case that added to the aura of scandal surrounding the country's leadership.

In the wake of the guilty verdict in the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court, speculation was widespread that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert would soon reshuffle his Cabinet.

Ramon resigned after he was indicted in August, and his duties were taken over by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on an interim basis.

Olmert may now seek broader changes in an attempt to regain respect for his government, which has been dragged down by scandal and criticism of its handling of the war with Hezbollah in Lebanon last summer.

The court ruled a week after Israeli President Moshe Katsav suspended himself for three months from his largely post while prosecutors considered possible charges of rape and sexual assault.

The Justice Ministry said such charges are likely, but prosecutors have not decided.

Katsav has left his official residence in Jerusalem and is living in southern Israel.

Indictments of prominent figures on sexual misconduct charges had been rare in Israel's macho culture.

But that changed in 1998 with the passage of a sexual harassment law.

In recent years, several such cases have occurred, including the 2001 conviction of Yitzhak Mordechai, a former defense minister and transportation minister.

Ramon, 56 and divorced, was charged with kissing a 21-year-old soldier at a government office on July 12, the day the war between Israel and Hezbollah began.

Ramon said the woman flirted with him at an office gathering, and asked to have her picture taken with him. In court, Ramon's lawyers showed a photograph of the two hugging as they posed for the camera.

In his testimony, Ramon also acknowledged the kiss, but said it was consensual.

However, the soldier said Ramon had kissed her against her will, and the three-judge panel concurred.

Photographers and video camera operators swarmed around a silent Ramon as he left the courthouse with his girlfriend.

He was to be sentenced in about three weeks, and could receive a maximum sentence of three years, but legal commentators said it was unlikely he would be imprisoned.