JERUSALEM (AP) — Former Israeli President Moshe Katsav was convicted of rape Thursday, a dramatic fall from grace for a man who rose from humble beginnings to become a symbol of achievement for Jews of Middle Eastern origin.
The disgraced politician, who had rejected a plea bargain that would have kept him out of jail, will likely be sentenced to four to 16 years in prison. The verdict was seen as a victory for the Israeli legal system and for women’s rights in a decades-long struggle to chip away at the nation’s macho culture, which once permitted political and military leaders great liberties.
“The court sent two clear and sharp messages: that everyone is equal and every woman has the full right to her body,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. But he added that it was “a sad day for Israel and its citizens.”
The Tel Aviv District Court found Katsav, 65, guilty of two counts of raping an employee in 1998, when he was Israel’s tourism minister. It also convicted him of lesser counts of indecent acts; sexual harassment involving two other women who worked for him when he was president, from 2000 to 2007; and obstruction of justice.
Katsav denied all allegations, claiming he was a victim of a political witch hunt and suggesting he was targeted because he is a Sephardic Jew — a Jew of Middle Eastern origin. But in Thursday’s ruling, the three-judge panel said his version of events was “strewn with lies.”
A somber Katsav left the courtroom without commenting, surrounded by his legal team, security guards and family members. His wife, Gila, didn’t appear in court.
He was ordered to surrender his passport while awaiting sentencing on a date that was not immediately set. Late Thursday, he was holed up in his home with his family.
Israel’s presidency is a largely ceremonial post, traditionally given to elder statesmen as a reward for a lifetime of public service. Winning the office capped a career in which Katsav became a model of success for Sephardic Jews, who for decades were a Jewish underclass in Israel relative to the well-off, European-rooted establishment.
Katsav’s world began to crumble late in his presidency when he complained that a female employee was trying to extort him. The woman went to police with her side of the story, detailing a series of sexual assaults. Other women came forward with similar complaints.
According to the indictment, Katsav forced one woman to the floor of his office at the Tourism Ministry in 1998 and raped her. Later that year, he summoned her to a Jerusalem hotel to go over paperwork and raped her on the bed in his room. The indictment alleged that Katsav tried to calm his victim by saying: “Relax, you’ll enjoy it.”
The indictment alleged that he harassed two women while he was president, embracing them against their will and making unwanted sexual comments. He also was charged with obstruction of justice: The indictment said Katsav tried to persuade one of the women to change her testimony.
Under heavy public pressure, Katsav resigned in 2007, two weeks before his term expired, under a plea bargain that would have required him to admit to lesser charges of sexual misconduct. But in a dramatic reversal, Katsav subsequently rejected the deal and vowed to clear his name in court.
Around that time, he held a bizarre news conference in which he lashed out at prosecutors and the media and denied any wrongdoing. His erratic behavior, in which he shook in anger, waved a computer disc that he said proved his innocence and screamed at reporters, raised questions about his state of mind.
The Israeli public has closely followed the case’s twists and salacious details.
The conviction of a former president on rape charges — virtually unheard of anywhere in the developed world — was the latest victory for women’s rights groups against the male-dominated military and political establishment.
In the early years of the state, some male leaders were known for womanizing and freewheeling ways, though that culture has gradually changed.
Women’s rights groups had rallied against Katsav. On Thursday, hundreds of women stood outside the courtroom holding signs against him and chanting: “The whole nation knows Katsav is a criminal.”
Emmanuel Gross, a law professor at Haifa University, said the verdict was a testament to the independence of Israel’s legal system. “Our judiciary is not afraid of anyone,” he said. “It is one of our greatest strengths.”
In recent years, a former finance minister was sent to prison for embezzling funds, a justice minister was convicted of forcibly kissing a female soldier, and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was forced to resign to face corruption charges. His trial is still in court.
Katsav was born in Iran and immigrated to Israel as a child, growing up in immigrant tent encampments and then in Kiryat Malachi, one of the failed “development” towns that Israel’s earliest governments built to populate the desert. Katsav, who is married and has five grown children, still resides in Kiryat Malachi, a hardscrabble town in southern Israel.
Katsav was elected mayor of Kiryat Malachi at the age of 24 — becoming the youngest mayor in Israel’s history. He rose through the ranks of the rightist Likud Party to hold a series of Cabinet posts before parliament selected him to be president in 2000. He engineered the upset victory over Nobel peace laureate Shimon Peres by rallying ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties behind him.
Katsav’s presidency was largely uneventful. In one of his moments of glory, he shook hands and chatted briefly with the president of archenemy Iran at the funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005. He also appealed for calm and unity during Israel’s traumatic withdrawal from the Gaza Strip a few months later.
On Thursday, Katsav’s son Boaz vowed his father would clear his name.
“We will continue to walk with our heads high and all the nation … with God’s help, will know that (my) father, the eighth president of the state of Israel, is innocent,” he said.
But one of Katsav’s lawyers, Avigdor Feldman, said his client had not yet decided whether to appeal.
Any appeal would likely focus on witness credibility — an area that Israel Radio legal analyst Moshe Negbi said Israel’s Supreme Court rarely reverses.
“He has nothing to lose. He will probably appeal, but he doesn’t have much of a chance,” Negbi said.
A presidential pardon also appears unlikely because of the severity of the offenses. The office of Peres, who became president when Katsav resigned, declined to comment.