Israeli Ex-President Proclaims Innocence Despite Plea Deal to Avoid Rape Charges

Disgraced Israeli President Moshe Katsav, forced from office by a deal that spared him rape charges and a possible prison term, was unapologetic Tuesday in his first interview since signing the plea bargain — an attitude that will likely fuel public outrage and might even torpedo the agreement.

Interviewed by Channel 2 TV two days after his resignation took effect, Katsav insisted he was innocent, portraying himself as victim of a campaign of incitement and saying that with the plea bargain, "90 percent of the charges were thrown in the trash." His wife, Gila, stood at his side during the interview.

Israeli Attorney General Meni Mazuz said in January that he was about to press rape, sexual assault and fraud charges against Katsav. But suddenly last week, most of the charges evaporated in a deal that would have Katsav plead guilty to two counts of sexual harassment and resign his office just two weeks before his term was up.

Women's rights groups challenged the plea bargain before Israel's Supreme Court and so far have succeeded in holding up its implementation for a week.

Four women who worked for Katsav charged that he repeatedly fondled them, kissed them, exposed himself to them and — in two cases — raped them while he served as president and earlier, as tourism minister. The allegations roiled the country by portraying the man who was supposed to be Israel's moral compass as a predatory boss who forced sexual favors from female employees.

In the interview, recorded in front of his house in Kiryat Malachi, a town in Israel's south, Katsav was defiant. "Ninety percent of the charges were thrown in the trash and that doesn't interest anybody," he said. "This should show, more than anything else, how the charges against me were baseless."

But Katsav said he would stand up in court and plead guilty to the remaining charges. "I will honor the agreements that were made between the attorney general and my lawyers," he said, without explaining in the edited interview broadcast late Tuesday.

As he has all along, however, Katsav insisted he was innocent. He described the period as "a full year of incitement, persecution, when we were not allowed a calm moment, and constant efforts to prove my innocence."

He darkly hinted at a plot: "In a dictatorship they kill to bring down a president," he said. "It turns out that in a democracy, too, they can shed one's blood."

The plea bargain outraged women's rights activists and led the main complainant to call a tearful news conference and describe in excruciating detail what she said Katsav had done to her. Identified only as "A" under Israeli law, she said she was the director of his office. Under the deal, her allegations were dropped from the charge sheet, and Mazuz hinted that he would have had trouble proving them in court.

Reacting to Katsav's remarks, Billi Moskona-Lerner of the Maariv daily complained that the women who complained are still the victims, but "the decisions are made by powerful men." She took part in a panel discussion on Israel TV late Tuesday.

The deal was almost unanimously excoriated in newspaper commentaries. Later this week, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the state's response to the appeals to cancel the deal.

Though Supreme Court justices are not supposed to be influenced by events outside the courtroom, Katsav's public declaration of innocence and lack of remorse and the public outcry that generated a spontaneous Tel Aviv rally of about 20,000 protesters on Saturday night might be a factor in their decision.

If the high court approves the deal, and Katsav pleads guilty, the lower court would have the power only to accept or reject the agreed punishment — a suspended sentence with no jail time.

The interview showed a calm, soft-spoken Katsav, a sharp contrast to his 50-minute televised tirade last January that followed the announcement that Mazuz intended to press rape charges. He blamed the news media for a witch hunt against him, implying he was a target because he represents Jews of Middle East origin.