TEL AVIV, Israel — When the residents of Kiryat Malakhi, the southern Israeli town whose name means “City of Angels,” picked Moshe Katsav as the youngest-ever mayor in the country’s history in 1970, he was 24. For decades he was the town’s symbol, an immigrant born in Iran who made it to the top of the establishment and was elected Israel's president in 2000.
Now it has been proven that they picked the wrong man.
Far from being an angel, Katsav stands convicted of two counts of rape and of other counts of sexual harassment and obstruction of justice. Tel Aviv District Court judges said Thursday that Katsav had “excelled in manipulation and withholding information” during his trial.
Katsav was found guilty of twice raping a woman who worked for him when he was tourism minister a decade and a half ago. He was also convicted of sexually abusing and harassing two women who worked for him at the president’s residence.
Beyond the ugliness of his crimes, the hubris of Katsav’s case is immense. It was Katsav who first drew public attention to his sexual misdeeds — to which other politicians had long turned a blind eye — by complaining five years ago to the attorney general that he was being blackmailed by one of the women he now turns out to have abused.
Subsequently, he was offered a controversially lenient plea bargain, according to which he would have escaped prison and accepted conviction on lesser charges than rape. Just as the deal was due to be signed, Katsav rejected it, claiming he would prove his innocence in court. It now appears he had been seduced by his own lies.
When the accusations were first leveled at him, Katsav ranted at length against the media in a rage-filled press conference at the presidential residence. He railed that he was the “victim of a lynching” by the media and the judiciary, because he was an upstart from a poor town whose origins lay in the Muslim world, not among the typical Israeli elite descended from European Jews. This was in spite of the fact that the attorney general who indicted Katsav was born in Tunisia.
The Tel Aviv judges noted the 65-year-old former president’s tactical error, when they highlighted the new evidence that had arisen since the rejection of the plea bargain — evidence which made his conviction all the more certain. Had Katsav accepted the plea deal, he would by now have been a candidate for prime minister. Instead, he could face up to 16 years in jail.
Katsav’s lawyers say he’ll appeal and, in the manner of the long court case so far, unnamed friends have appeared in the Israeli press to say how depressed he is that the court didn’t accept his explanation of events. Some described him as too upset to leave his house for his local synagogue on Friday.
Outside the court, where his father had been required to surrender his passport, Katsav’s son Boaz rejected the verdict: “We will continue to walk with our heads high, so all the nation throughout its generations, with God’s help, will know that father, the eighth president of the State of Israel, is innocent.”
Israeli commentators didn’t have their heads held quite as high as the Katsav family. Most contrasted Katsav with previous generations of Israeli leaders, suggesting that he symbolized the declining mores of leadership in the society as a whole.
“The rapist president, Moshe Katsav, is a symbol for the depths to which the national leadership of the State of Israel has sunk,” wrote Ari Shavit in an opinion piece in Ha’aretz, a leading Israeli newspaper. “This is something that we never even dreamed of.”
Israelis have grown accustomed to graft and corruption among senior ministers and officials. A former finance minister is currently serving a term for stealing from a union fund, the ex-health minister is doing four years for taking bribes, and the last prime minister awaits trial on numerous counts of bribery and corruption.
Still, a conviction of rape represents a new nadir for the country’s representatives, even if some commentators suggested that Israelis should be proud that their judicial system prosecuted such a prominent figure, rather than covering it up. That was also the argument of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, though he called it “a sad day for the State of Israel and its citizens.”
“Today the court conveyed two clear-cut messages,” Netanyahu said. “That all are equal before the law and that every woman has exclusive right to her body.”