JERUSALEM – Israel's embattled president gave up his powers temporarily on Thursday, but dozens of lawmakers vowed to have him dismissed so he could face a raft of sexual assault charges, including rape.
President Moshe Katsav, who insists he is the victim of a conspiracy, stepped aside after a parliamentary committee voted 13-11 to grant his request to do so. He preserved his immunity by taking a leave rather than resigning.
Lawmaker Zehava Galon, who is leading parliamentary efforts to oust Israel's eighth president, was outraged that parliament's House Committee didn't put ousting Katsav on its agenda.
"The decision taken today is a prize for a man accused of rape," Galon said. "Instead of finding himself behind bars, this man charged with rape gets a prize of continuing to serve as president."
Parliamentary speaker Dalia Itzik stepped in as acting president — the first woman to hold the post.
For seven months, Katsav has been at the center of allegations that he preyed on women who worked for him, threatening to fire them if they didn't grant him sexual favors.
On Tuesday, Attorney General Meni Mazuz notified Katsav that he intended to press charges of rape, sexual assault and abuse of power, but said he would first give the president an opportunity to plead his case before him.
Katsav has said he would resign if, after the hearing, Mazuz decides to go ahead with the indictment.
The president, whose seven-year term is due to end in July, made no public comment after the parliamentary committee's vote.
But in an emotional, hourlong speech broadcast on all Israeli television stations on Wednesday, the 61-year-old Katsav painted himself as the victim of a vicious campaign by journalists, police and the state prosecution to smear his name. He said he would "fight with his last breath" fight to clear his name, but would not resign before his hearing.
Top officials, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, beseeched 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.
Polls published in the country's two mass-circulation dailies Thursday showed most Israelis also want Katsav to quit now.
A poll of 516 people by the Dahaf Research Institute, published Thursday, showed 71 percent of respondents saying he should resign at once, while 29 percent said he need not quit right now.The margin of error was 4.4 percentage points.
The Maariv newspaper ran a survey of 400 people by pollsters Teleseker, which said 67 percent of those questioned thought Katsav should step down, while 21 percent did not. A further 2.5 percent said they didn't know. The paper did not provide a margin of error.
Galon has said she would pursue her unprecedented campaign to oust a sitting president. The chairwoman of the House Committee, Ruhama Avraham, said the panel would begin deliberating the matter early next week.
Thirty lawmakers — 10 more than required — signed a motion to begin dismissal proceedings, and nearly 70 have already said they would vote to remove Katsav, an aide to Galon said.
Removal requires a three-fourths majority in the 120-seat parliament, and analysts said it might be difficult to reach such a number.
The scandal has badly tarnished the office of the presidency.
The position, while ceremonial, traditionally was 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.
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.