Israeli President to Skip Parliament Opening After Rape Allegations

Succumbing to intense pressure, President Moshe Katsav on Monday canceled his attendance at the opening ceremony of the winter session of parliament after police recommended he be indicted on rape charges.

Katsav's brother, Lior, said the president would stay home to protect the dignity of the Knesset, or parliament. In his largely symbolic post, Katsav had been expected to preside over the ceremony.

"There are apparently some members of Knesset who want to hover like vultures over carcasses and create provocations and to harm the image of the Knesset and symbols of power in Israel," Lior Katsav told Army Radio. "The president will not be part of this charade."

CountryWatch: Israel

Several lawmakers, including all members of the liberal Meretz party, had threatened to boycott Monday's parliamentary ceremony if Katsav attended.

Police on Sunday recommended that Katsav be indicted for rape, aggravated sexual assault and other counts, wrapping up a months-long investigation into complaints by women who worked for him. Katsav has denied any wrongdoing.

Attorney General Meni Mazuz must make the final decision on whether to indict. Although a decision is likely weeks away, calls on Katsav to suspend himself or resign are growing.

Katsav's lawyer, Zion Amir, said his client has no plans to step down, though a formal indictment would "be a turning point that the president will have to take into consideration."

While Israel has a long history of political scandals, the charges that Katsav could face would be the most serious criminal counts ever brought against a serving official. In the past, a previous president and several prime ministers were suspected of financial misdeeds, and a former defense minister as convicted of sexual harassment.

In a statement released Sunday, police said the recommendations were based on complaints filed by "women who worked under his [Katsav's] authority."

It said there was evidence he committed crimes of "rape, aggravated sexual assault, indecent acts without permission and offenses under the law to prevent sexual harassment."

Police also said the found the basis for charges of fraud and malfeasance, as well as illegal wiretapping. Investigations that Katsav disrupted a police investigation and harassed a witness are still in progress.

Katsav, who hasn't commented on the police recommendations, has said he is the victim of a conspiracy.

"We have no doubt of his innocence," Lior Katsav said. "We know he is being framed and he is being blamed of things that did not happen."

Katsav's lawyer issued a statement Sunday saying that police are not authorized to bring charges. It noted that in the past, when police have recommended putting senior officials on trial, the attorney general has dismissed most of the cases.

The scandal has marred the two-decade career of a politician with an image of being dull but squeaky-clean. Katsav, a longtime backbencher in the Likud Party, was elected to the presidency by parliament in a shocking upset over Nobel laureate and elder statesman Shimon Peres.

Although the position is largely ceremonial, the president is expected to set moral standards and help unify the country during times of trouble. During the recent war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, Katsav visited areas hit by rocket fire, rushing for shelter in a building during one barrage.

Katsav has said he has no intention of stepping down before the end of his seven-year term next year. However, if indicted he would likely have to step aside.

Katsav, 60, was born in Iran, and is the first president to come from among the Jews who emigrated from Muslim countries and who suffered discrimination at the hands of the European Jewish establishment in the first years of the state.

His ascension to the presidency was seen as a seen that those once dismissed as marginal had joined Israel's elite.

Israel Radio and Channel 2 TV said the case against Katsav is based on complaints by five women who allege he made unwanted sexual advances toward them during his tenure as president and before that, as a government minister. Complaints by five other women are not being pursued because the statute of limitations has run out, the reports said.

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.