JERUSALEM – Shaking with fury, Israeli President Moshe Katsav rebuffed growing calls for his resignation Wednesday, saying accusations he committed rape and other crimes were "poisonous, horrible lies" that were part of a broad conspiracy against him.
Katsav asked parliament to temporarily suspend him from office while he fought to clear his name. But momentum was building for lawmakers to open unprecedented impeachment proceedings against the president, and top officials, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, urged Katsav to stop clinging to office and allow the nation to heal.
"Under these circumstances, there is no doubt in my mind that the president cannot continue to fulfill his position and he must leave the president's residence," Olmert said.
Impeachment requires a three-fourths majority in parliament, and analysts said that might be difficult to achieve. In contrast, a majority in a parliamentary committee could approve Katsav's request to stand down temporarily.
The presidency, a mainly ceremonial post, was traditionally filled by statesmen and national heroes who were expected to serve as the moral light of the country. Accusations that Katsav used his position to force himself on female employees have infuriated Israelis.
At a stormy, nationally televised speech at his official residence Wednesday night, Katsav professed his innocence and accused the police and media of working together to bring him down, using terms like "witch hunt" and "McCarthyism." He angrily pounded the podium and his voice cracked during a rambling diatribe that lasted nearly an hour.
"Don't believe the libel, the defamation, the lies. There is only one truth ... I am the target of one of the worst attacks in the history of the state of Israel," Katsav said, gesturing with a pointed finger, pounding on the podium and shouting at a reporter. He pledged to "fight to my last breath, even if it means a world war, to clear my name."
He refused to answer questions from reporters in his first appearance before them since the scandal broke six months ago.
Pressure quickly mounted on Katsav to step down after Attorney General Meni Mazuz announced Tuesday that he plans to indict him on rape, sexual assault, abuse of power and other charges.
Katsav "should not be waging the battle to prove his innocence from the president's office," Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who also serves as acting justice minister, said in a statement.
Thirty of parliament's 120 lawmakers — 10 more than required — signed a motion to begin impeachment proceedings, and nearly 70 have already said they would vote to remove Katsav, according to the office of lawmaker Zehava Galon, who initiated the drive. Impeachment would require the support of 90 legislators.
In an effort to blunt the protests, Katsav asked parliament on Wednesday to grant him a leave of absence, which could last up to three months.
Minister of Public Security Avi Dichter brushed off Katsav's suggestion, saying he "must not cling to the post, not even for a few months."
A parliamentary committee will meet Thursday to discuss the request, but committee members appeared to be leaning toward recommending impeachment.
Resignation or impeachment would deprive Katsav of his presidential immunity. The 61-year-old Katsav's seven-year term is to end this summer. If he leaves office early, parliamentary speaker Dalia Itzik will become acting president until parliament chooses a replacement.
Mazuz said that before officially pressing charges, he would give the president an opportunity to plead his case.
During his speech Wednesday, Katsav said he would resign if officially indicted. "I will not stay in this house for one more second. I will resign," he pledged.
But the president, who was born in Iran, was defiant and implied the charges against him were motivated by racism against Israelis of Middle Eastern origin, who have traditionally been marginalized here.
His wife, Gila, sat softly crying in the audience.
No sitting Israeli president has ever been charged with a crime. But the Israeli public has grown accustomed to the spectacle of politicians mired in corruption scandals. Former Justice Minister Haim Ramon is currently being tried in a separate sexual misconduct case, and Olmert is under investigation for his role in the sale of a government-controlled bank.