Israeli president faces pressure to quit

Israeli President Moshe Katsav faced growing pressure on Wednesday to resign after prosecutors announced they intended to charge him with rape and other sexual offences against female employees.

Katsav, who has denied any wrongdoing, will hold a news conference later on Wednesday, his office said, to deliver his first public comments since details of a draft indictment were released by the Justice Ministry on Tuesday.

Local media reports said he was likely to announce an immediate leave of absence from his largely ceremonial duties to prepare for what would be the first criminal charges against an Israeli head of state.

Allegations against the Iranian-born Katsav, whose rise from the slums once served a shining example for disadvantaged Jewish immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, have stirred deep emotions in Israel, where the presidency is supposed to be a beacon of morality.

”[Katsav’s] resignation is the proper thing at this time,” said Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who also serves as foreign minister.

Livni, a member of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s centrist Kadima party, said in a statement that Katsav was innocent until proven guilty but he should wage his fight to clear his name ”from outside the president’s residence”.

Her comments were echoed across the political spectrum.

Left-wing legislator Zahava Gal-On said her Meretz party would seek the required 90 signatures of lawmakers to begin impeachment proceedings in Parliament against Katsav.

Under Israeli law, a president cannot be put on trial while in office. Katsav’s term is due to end in July.

The case was unlikely to have a direct impact on Olmert, who himself is under investigation over alleged corruption.

Olmert has denied any misdeeds in the matters being probed — suspected influence-peddling in the sale of his Jerusalem home in 2004 and an alleged attempt to give cronies a boost in bidding for a state-owned bank in 2005.

Sexual assault

The Katsav scandal erupted last year when several former staffers filed complaints with police, accusing him of sexual assault.

The Justice Ministry, listing four alleged victims by their initials in the draft indictment, said on Tuesday it intends to charge Katsav with raping one of the women, using his status to force another to have sex with him and committing indecent acts against all of them.

Attorney General Menachem Mazuz said he would grant Katsav a hearing, whose date would be set soon, to present legal arguments before final charges are drawn up.

”The president is convinced it will become clear to all he is the victim of false accusations intended to push him out of his job, and he will fight to prove his innocence,” said one of Katsav’s lawyers, David Liba’i.

Parliament elected Katsav president in 2000 — he beat Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shimon Peres — after Ezer Weizman resigned from the post following disclosures he received $450 000 in gifts from a French millionaire. Weizman died in 2005.

Peres (83), currently deputy prime minister, has been mooted as a candidate to succeed Katsav. — Reuters

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