Israeli President Under Fire

JERUSALEM Jan. 25, 2007 — -- Israel's President Moshe Katsav has so far avoided impeachment and calls for his resignation for at least the next three months.

A special government committee voted 13-11 to declare Katsav "temporarily incapacitated," meaning that despite intense pressure he will not have to resign for now.

Katsav will get a three-month leave of absence as the result of a rarely used ruling, usually reserved for the sick who are unable to fulfill their duties. After an investigation by the Israeli attorney general, spurned by accusations from four women who worked at Katsav's office, the president may be indicted on charges of rape, sexual assault and abuse of power.

In a nationally televised address last night, Katsav went on a tirade, refusing to take questions from journalists, at times slamming his fist on the podium and screaming at the media, accusing it of being duped into a witch hunt.

"Don't believe the libel, the defamation, the lies," said the visibly shaken president. "There is only one truth … I am the target of one of the worst attacks in the history of the state of Israel," he said.

Michael Partem, a lawyer who works with the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, a nonprofit group trying to root out corruption, was shocked like most Israelis at the president's televised diatribe.

"It was the (Nixon) 'I am Not a Crook Speech' with a Middle Eastern twist," he said. "This is an embarrassment because the president is a figurehead. His job is to represent the best of Israelis and the best aspirations of Israelis to the world."

Talk radio is focusing on little else. The headlines in the widely circulated newspaper Ma'ariv screamed "The Charge: Rape."

Widely read Israeli columnist Gideon Levy accused the president of undermining the media in his speech, the very institution a president should be supporting as a leader of a democratic country like Israel.

"We cannot tolerate a head of state who incites his nation against the media for doing their job," wrote Levy in his column. "Perhaps he is only suspected of rape, but he should already be convicted for yesterday's incitement. The only honest thing he can do now is to go home."

Tzipi Livini, who is both foreign minister and justice minister, said in a statement that Katsav "should not be waging the battle to prove his innocence from the president's office."

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also weighed. "There is no doubt in my mind that the president cannot continue to fulfill his position, and he must leave the president's residence."

Katsav's case is just one of several high-profile investigations going on in Israel. The attorney general is also looking into Olmert's dealings with the sale of an Israeli bank in 2005. The prime minister's top aide is also being investigated as well as the head of the Israeli tax authority for possible bribery.

If Katsav is charged and found guilty he could face up to 20 years in prison.