Israeli officials push for president’s resignation

JERUSALEM – Israeli President Moshe Katsav faced the strongest pressure yet to step down yesterday, when Israel’s attorney general urged him to take leave while an indictment on rape and other serious charges is taking shape.

Though Attorney General Meni Mazuz’s recommendation cannot force Katsav from office, it adds an influential voice to the growing chorus of officials who have called for the president to resign.

Because the law governing the presidency does not give either Mazuz or the Supreme Court the authority to rule on any aspect of the Katsav’s activities, the attorney general’s recommendation in a brief to the court amounted to the strongest official language Mazuz could use.

A defiant Katsav appeared determined to hang on to his office. In a statement late last night, he rejected the attorney general’s recommendation, saying it was “the obligation of the authorities to do everything to seek the truth and not allow a media lynching to disrupt the investigation of the truth.”

In his legal opinion, Mazuz recommended that Katsav consider stepping aside until the allegations are resolved. He noted that the burden fell on the president himself, but added that “it would be incorrect and inappropriate for the President to continue serving” as an indictment takes shape.

The president’s refusal to step aside has complicated the investigation since some of the witnesses work for him, Mazuz also wrote.

The Israeli presidency is largely ceremonial, but is seen as a symbol of unity elevated above politics – an image that has added to popular pressure on Katsav to quit because he no longer seems to measure up.

Mazuz himself is to make the decision about whether to indict Katsav on by far the most serious charges ever considered against a high Israeli official.

Police recommended two weeks ago that the president be indicted on charges including rape and aggravated sexual assault, following a lengthy investigation into complaints by several women who worked for Katsav during his tenure as president and, before that, as a Cabinet minister.

Police also recommended he be charged with fraud, illegal wiretapping and other charges, and he is still being investigated on suspicion of disrupting a police investigation and harassing a witness.

The investigation of Katsav began earlier this year after a former employee alleged he forced her to have sex under the threat of dismissal. Police repeatedly questioned Katsav at his official residence and seized personal documents.

Katsav, 60, has denied the allegations and said he is the victim of a conspiracy by political enemies.

The president’s lawyers have indicated he will resign if indicted, following the precedent of a Cabinet minister who was forced to step down after he was charged with a crime. But the attorney general said yesterday that he will not make a decision on an indictment for several more weeks.

In the meantime, Mazuz was forced by the courts to reply to a lawsuit and, in a written response, said the president should step aside.

“Of course, the more serious the allegations and the farther along in the process, the obligation increases for the president to take the step of temporarily suspending his term,” he said.

Moshe Negbi, an Israeli legal expert, said the recommendation had no legal authority but carried an “ethical force,” since Mazuz, the person most familiar with the case against the president, is saying the evidence collected against the president justifies his suspension.

“This is a a signal to the president that he should go, and that if he doesn’t, the parliament should act to impeach him,” Negbi said.

The parliament is the only body with the authority to suspend the president.

The president enjoys immunity while in office and could be tried only after his resignation or end of term. However, Negbi said the next president could pardon Katsav, similarly to how President Ford pardoned President Nixon after Watergate.

Lior Katsav, the president’s brother, said he did not think the president should resign.

“The investigation is still going on, so why does the president have to suspend himself, even temporarily?” Lior Katsav told Army Radio. “If there is material that justifies an indictment, he should issue an indictment. To my knowledge, there is no evidence to justify an indictment.”