JERUSALEM – Israel's president is being dogged by allegations of sexual harassment, and the spiraling scandal has pushed the country's violent standoff with Hamas over a kidnapped soldier off the front pages.
The swirl of accusations against President Moshe Katsav has not led to charges or even a police investigation, but is threatening to tarnish the image of a Mr. Clean politician and has invited comparisons to that other presidential sex scandal. "Who does he think he is? Clinton?" a pair of comedians wrote in a newspaper column this week.
Katsav, who has held the largely ceremonial office since 2000, denies wrongdoing.
The first allegation surfaced late last week, when Israel's Channel 2 TV reported that a former senior employee in the president's office accused him of sexually harassing her.
The station reported that in a meeting with Katsav last week, she also threatened to disclose the number of an overseas bank account allegedly set up to collect money he received in exchange for presidential pardons. The employee demanded hush money, the report said.
The Maariv newspaper reported Tuesday that a second woman has since come forward. "Katsav sexually harassed me," the headline blared, but the newspaper did not reveal her identity.
The president, whose decades-long political career had been unmarred by any whiff of scandal, insisted in a statement that all his dealings with female employees have been professional.
His office has said he has filed no blackmail complaint. But it rejected the graft accusation as absurd. "The president decides whether to grant clemency after a recommendation by the justice minister, whose signature is required on the writ of clemency," his office said.
No sexual harassment charges have been lodged against Katsav.
The president discussed the case with Attorney General Meni Mazuz last week. Mazuz asked Katsav to hand over any pertinent documents to him.
Late Tuesday, Mazuz ordered a criminal investigation into the alleged blackmail attempt, Israeli media reported.
Quoting Justice Ministry officials, the Haaretz daily's Web site said the probe is a preliminary investigation opened on the basis of a meeting between Katsav and Mazuz and two letters the president provided the attorney general.
Katsav, Israel's eighth president, was elected by parliament in 2000.
Israeli presidents enjoy immunity from trial on charges related to their tenure in office, Justice Ministry spokesman Jacob Galanti said. They are not immune from investigation, Galanti said.
The Katsav case's only competition in newspapers and radio news shows Tuesday were heated demands by religious leaders to cancel an international gay pride parade next month scheduled to take place in Jerusalem.
Israel's two-week military operation in Gaza, in an attempt to win freedom for a soldier kidnapped by Hamas-allied militants, was relegated to the back pages.
The president's office is no stranger to scandal. Ezer Weizman's last year as president in 2000 was tainted by allegations that he accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from a French tycoon.
Police could not prove he evaded taxes or violated a law prohibiting government officials from accepting gifts in the course of official business. But they said Weizman's failure to report the gifts to authorities constituted fraud and breach of public trust.
The case was closed — but only because the 5-year statute of limitations had run out on those charges.