Israeli president’s deal draws backlash


JERUSALEM (AP) – A plea bargain that would allow Israel’s former president to avoid rape charges and jail time has drawn a fierce public backlash, with protests in Tel Aviv and a Supreme Court appeal on Sunday that have put the deal in doubt.

The plea bargain between prosecutors and Moshe Katsav, who stepped down as Israel’s ceremonial leader on Sunday, would allow him to confess to lesser counts of sexual harassment and receive a suspended sentence.

In January, Attorney General Meni Mazuz said he was planning to file rape charges that could carry a 20-year prison term.

Now, Katsav’s critics fear the deal will allow him to fade quietly away, insisting he signed the deal only to relieve the strain on his family, with the gravest charges buried.

Four women who worked for Katsav charged that he repeatedly groped them, kissed them, exposed himself to them and – in two cases – raped them while he served as president and earlier, when he was tourism minister.

Katsav has claimed he was the victim of a witch hunt. He stepped aside in January to fight the charges but refused to resign until the plea bargain forced him to do so, two weeks before his term was due to end anyway.

Dropping the most serious charges infuriated women’s rights activists and led to a hastily organized demonstration in central Tel Aviv on Saturday night which drew a surprisingly large crowd of around 20,000.

On Sunday, three women’s rights group filed separate appeals to the Supreme Court, which then ordered the plea bargain frozen for at least 24 hours.

Sunday’s columns in Israeli papers slammed the deal with near unanimity.

A poll by the Dahaf Research Institute published Friday in the Yediot Ahronot daily showed that 73 percent thought justice was not served. The poll surveyed 503 people and had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.

The Israelis who flocked Saturday night to Tel Aviv’s main square demanded that Katsav stand trial and called on Mazuz to resign.

“We are asking to hear the evidence. We don’t demand mercy, we demand justice,” Yael Dayan, a former lawmaker and prominent women’s rights advocate, said at the rally. “We are calling on the courts to have the courage not to approve the deal.”

The Supreme Court might take the rare step of declaring the plea bargain unacceptable and sending it back for revision, said Noya Rimalt, an expert on criminal law and feminist legal theory at Haifa University.

In announcing the plea bargain, Mazuz said one of his considerations was the reputation of the Israeli presidency and his desire to avoid a prolonged trial with painful headlines – a point Rimalt said could be legally invalid and might provide a motive for the court to strike down the deal.

Even if the Supreme Court chooses to let the deal go ahead, a lower court that has to approve it could decide that the sentence is too light and impose a heavier one, Rimalt said.

The public outcry might also play a role.

“Judges are not supposed to be affected by such things, but of course they’re human beings,” Rimalt said.

The outcry over Katzav’s plea deal is evidence of a slow evolution in Israeli public opinion, once tolerant of sexual misbehavior by high-ranking public figures, said Tziona Koenig-Yair, executive director of the Israel Women’s Network, one of the three groups behind the Supreme Court appeals.

Israeli heroes like Moshe Dayan were reputedly notorious philanderers, an excess that the country’s macho culture was willing to accept decades ago. But that changed with the conviction of Yitzhak Mordechai, a former defense minister, for sexual assault in 2001, and continued with the conviction of former Cabinet minister Haim Ramon for sexual misconduct earlier this year.

“It’s a change that has taken place over a decade or two, and especially in the last five years,” Koenig-Yair said. “The public is tired of public officials who are supposed to represent them behaving in this way, and the Katsav case just crossed a line that people were not prepared to accept anymore.”

AP-ES-07-01-07 1621EDT