Moshe Katsav, former president of Israel, was convicted of rape in a Tel Aviv courtroom today. The charges were based on a pair of 1998 assaults against a female employee, along with lesser convictions for a series of “indecent acts” and sexual harassment. According to the Associated Press, these are “the most serious charges ever brought against a high-ranking official.”
The Israeli presidency is much different from the American version. It’s a mostly ceremonial post, awarded by vote of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, rather than a general national election. The president spends much of his time representing Israel at international ceremonies, so the position is viewed as an honor conferred upon distinguished elder statesmen. Katsav, who was 55 when elected to the presidency in 2000, had a long career in the Likud party, from serving as mayor of the city of Kiryat Malachi in the 1970s to a seat in the Knesset from 1977 to 2000. During this time, he held cabinet posts as Deputy Minister of Housing and Construction, Minister of Labor and Social Affairs, Minister of Transport, Minister of Tourism, and Deputy Prime Minister.
His trial revealed that Katsav had a long history of making improper advances toward female employees. He was found guilty of raping an aide twice in 1998, when he was Minister of Tourism. On one occasion he was said to have instructed his victim to “relax, you’ll enjoy it.” He was also convicted of sexual harassment against an 18-year-old at the presidential residence, and improper behavior with an assistant at his 60th birthday party in 2005. He’s been married since 1969 and has five children.
Katsav originally accepted a plea bargain that involved stepping down as President several weeks before his term was due to expire, ceding his office to Shimon Peres. Two years later, in 2009, he suddenly rejected the plea bargain and announced his decision to clear his name in court.
Many elements of his defense are depressingly familiar to Americans. His version of “I did not have sex with that woman” involved screaming at reporters and waving a computer disc he claimed would prove his innocence above his head. He tried claiming his victims wanted to blackmail him, and that the charges were a political hit job from his opponents. While he hasn’t been formally charged with perjury, the BBC reports judges dismissed his defensive evidence as “riddled with lies.”
Of course, the biggest difference between the Katsav case and any American precedents you might be thinking of is that Katsav got convicted. He could serve four to sixteen years in prison for the charges. Women’s groups in Israel demanded justice instead of providing cover for him, chanting “The whole nation knows Katsav is a criminal” outside the courtroom. Prime Minister Netanyahu said today was “a sad day for the State of Israel and its citizens” but hailed the court for “conveying two clear-cut messages: that all are equal before the law, and that every woman has exclusive rights to her body.”
Israelis are expressing pride in the efficiency and impartiality of their judicial system, even as they might be wishing it didn’t have quite so many opportunities to demonstrate that no one is above the law. A former Finance Minister is already in jail for embezzlement, the former Justice Minister was convicted on his own sexual harassment charges, and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is on trial for corruption. Clean governments do not come easy in any corner of the world.