Report: Israeli president takes leave of absence

Israeli President Moshe Katsav informed Parliament on Wednesday he was taking a leave of absence after prosecutors announced they intended to charge him with rape and other sexual offences, Channel Two television said.

Katsav’s self-imposed suspension from his largely ceremonial duties stopped short of meeting mounting demands by legislators that he resign ahead of what would be an unprecedented criminal indictment of an Israeli head of state.

Channel Two said Katsav told Parliament in a letter he was suspending himself from office. A spokesperson for Parliament was not immediately available for comment. Katsav’s office did not confirm the report and said the president would make a public statement later.

The 61-year-old leader, whose term ends in July, has denied any wrongdoing. Under Israeli law a president cannot be put on trial while on office but Parliament has power of impeachment.

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

The Justice Ministry, citing four alleged victims in the draft indictment, said on Tuesday it intends to charge Katsav with raping one of the women, using his status to have sex with another and carrying out indecent acts against all of them.

The case was unlikely to have a direct impact on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who himself is under investigation over alleged corruption, but it has stirred deep emotions in Israel, where the presidency is supposed to be a beacon of morality.

Olmert has denied any wrongdoing 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 in a bank privatisation in 2005.

Attorney General Menachem Mazuz said he would grant Katsav a hearing, whose date would be set soon, to present legal arguments before a final version of the indictment is 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 his lawyers, David Liba’i.

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

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

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