JERUSALEM – Police on Tuesday questioned a senior Israeli government minister and presumptive presidential candidate over allegations he committed a sex offense against a former aide 15 years ago -- a charge that may not hold up in court but that could derail any hopes for the presidency.
The allegations against Silvan Shalom threaten to destroy the career of one of Israel's best-known politicians and echo a case that sent a former president, Moshe Katsav, to prison after being convicted of rape.
The allegations were made in recent days by a woman claiming to be a former secretary in Shalom's office while he was minister of science and technology. She said that he invited her up to his hotel room, where he lay on a bed in a white robe and asked her to sit next to him. She told the Army Radio station that she felt coerced to perform a sex act on Shalom.
"I was terrified, very frightened. I remember the feeling that was so unpleasant, so uncomfortable, where I didn't know what I was supposed to do," she told the station. Her voice was muffled in an attempt to conceal her identity.
Shalom, 55, has vehemently denied the accusations, and his spokesman, Barak Seri, said he answered "all questions" when probed by police for nearly two hours on Tuesday.
Observers and defenders have said the timing of the allegation is suspect, with the race for the presidency heating up. Shalom has not formally declared his candidacy but he is widely expected to run for the position, which is to be selected by a parliamentary vote in the coming months.
"This is a man who has served the public more than 20 years, filled countless senior positions and was never investigated or accused of anything," his stepson, Nimrod Nir, wrote on Facebook. "All of this is happening at the height of the battle for the presidency."
Shalom, a member of the ruling Likud Party, currently serves as the minister for energy and water resources. In a political career stretching back nearly two decades, he has held a number of top posts, including finance minister, foreign minister and deputy prime minister.
Married to Judy Shalom Nir-Mozes, a wealthy socialite and TV host, he has become one of Israel's most recognizable politicians and winning the presidency would be the zenith of his career.
Shalom's case harkens back to the Katsav affair, in which the former president was jailed for a rape conviction committed as government Cabinet minister, as well as for harassment charges while serving as president from 2000 to 2007.
The case forced Katsav to step down in disgrace weeks before his term was to end, and Nobel peace laureate Shimon Peres was elected to succeed him. Peres, 90, is set to complete his seven-year term in July.
Katsav's jailing was bittersweet for Israel. It was shameful because the former holder of a lofty office was put behind bars for such a heinous crime. At the same time, it was a point of honor because it showed that even a president is equal before the law in Israel.
The president holds a largely ceremonial position, greeting ambassadors, hosting state events and representing the country at ceremonies around the world. But the president is also seen as the country's moral compass, meant to rise above politics and unify the nation in times of trouble. Peres has won accolades for restoring honor to the office following Katsav's troubled tenure.
The allegations against Shalom may not put him behind bars. Because the alleged crime took place 15 years ago, the accusation, even if true, would not stand up to Israel's 10-year statute of limitations for sex offenses.
Roni Aloni Sadovnik, the lawyer representing the complainant, said she hoped other women who have may been harmed by Shalom would be prompted by the recent allegation to come forward.
But the claims themselves could do enough damage to dash any hopes for the presidency.
"When talking about the highest, most esteemed position, you can't have a person whose ethics are questionable," said Noya Rimalt, a law professor at Haifa University. "There is a clear public interest to investigate."
The woman who alleged the claims said outright that she went public because she wanted to thwart Shalom's bid for president.
"This is my chance, now, to cause him to not become president," she told Army Radio. "He will not be my representative to the world."
Lawyer Orna Sasson-Tamir told Army Radio that the woman approached her about the incident 15 years ago, but that she persuaded her not to report the account because she would face a protracted and difficult investigation process.
Still, the timing has raised suspicions. Sima Kadmon, a columnist for the Yediot Ahronot daily, questioned why the complainant had no problem seeing Shalom jet around the world as foreign minister or racing up the party ranks over the years.
"When you conjure up an incident that did or did not take place 15 years ago, precisely on the eve of Shalom running for president, when it is clear that you do not need more than this in order to thwart his political ambitions for good--it smells funny," she wrote.
A number of recent cases alleging sexual wrongdoings by high-profile entertainers and media figures have ended without charges filed.