Wednesday, January 24, 2007

When is a President not a President?

Israel’s beleaguered President Moshe Katzav, who is reportedly about to be indicted for rape, held a long press conference today laying out why he was not prepared to resign from the Presidency and complaining that up until now he has been tried and convicted in the media before any charges were ever filed against him.

President Katzav spoke from the Israel President’s official residence. He detailed his long career in public service, enumerating his positive contributions, and underlining his complete cooperation with the police since the investigations began.

President Katzav claimed in his speech that the three women who have testified against him all had ulterior motives. One was fired from his offices years ago, and another continued to call him asking for his blessing on her birthday.

President Katzav’s Attorney Amram Shomron, issued a claim today that the primary complainant against President Katzav, the mysterious Miss “A”, was a blackmailer, and had a history of prostitution. The lawyer, interviewed on Israel Radio’s Army channel, said that he wondered why it had taken the woman years to come forward wth a complaint.

President Katzav claimed that as early as last September Israel’s Attorney General Moshe Mazuz had already issued press reports that Katzav was guilty and should resign from his position. Katzav complained to the audience at the press conference that Mr. Mazuz was out of line in this accusation, since the investigation had not yet been completed, nor any charges filed against the President.

The president earlier asked the Knesset to agree to a leave of absence. He pledged not to succumb to calls for his resignation, which he said would be the easy option. So far nearly 30 Knesset members have signed a petition asking for Katzav’s resignation.

Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, himself under investigation for influence peddling, called on President Katzav to resign. Olmert was speaking at the at the annual Herzliya Conference, where Israel and some international leaders gather to discuss the most pressing issues of the period.

Olmert earlier called on the world to confront the Iranian nuclear threat.

In his speech President Katzav singled out the media, saying he has survived the past six months and a "media lynch" because he believes in his own innocence, despite a "media court" that has not sought the truth. "I have survived because truth is on my side," he said.

He accused members of the Israeli media ignoring their work ethic by not investigating if perhaps the charges against him were false.

Katzav’s speech was emotional. He looked tired, and drawn with black raccoon rings around his eyes. He has reportedly been under enormous pressure, even suffering chest pains, and undergoing a brief hospitalization.

Attorney General Mazuz decided in principle on Tuesday that Katsav would face charges for rape, sexual harassment, obstruction of justice, fraud and breach of trust, pending a hearing on the issue.

The four women whom Katsav is accused of sexually assaulting include three past and present employees of the President's Residence and one who worked under Katsav during his tenure as tourism minister, in 1998-1999.

Attorney General Mazuz also plans to charge the president with giving away items that belonged to the President's Residence at private events, as well as with obstruction of justice and harassing a witness, for trying to pressure one of the President's Residence employees to retract her complaint against him.

The news media circus that has surrounded Katzav’s difficulties includes journalists calling anyone they could to add any credence possible to the claims against Katzav. One radio journalist on Wednesday phoned an employee in the Ministry of Tourism to try to get something on Katzav.

The woman said she had never seen Katzav do anything to any women, and he had not done anything to her. When pressured, she did admit that she’d heard rumors about Katzav, and other Ministers, making sexual advances on women in the Ministry of Tourism. The journalist pressured her to go into these rumors. She was vague, saying that many women were afraid to go public against a minister or a President.

Other reporters visited Katazav’s hometown of Kyriat Malachi, where he had once been mayor. Different people interviewed claimed that Katzav had a long history of using his position for sexual favors. They claimed that it was common knowledge in Kyriat Malachi, that if a woman wanted a job, she had to ‘come across.’

However, these rumors have no substance in court. According to many people interviewed, this type of behavior was common in Israel for many years, in the government, and in the army.

President Katzav, however still claims that he was set up. One of the outbursts Katzav made during his press conference was against Israel Television’s Channel 2, and their news moderator Gadi Sukenik. President Katzav claimed that Channel 2 went overboard in attacking him, belittling him, trying him in the press, even to the point of spilling his blood in public. President Katzav claimed that Channel 2 once called to cancel a scheduled interview with him to interview Mohamed Dahalan, the PA security chief. “They chose Dahalan over the President of Israel.”

Channel 2 News chief Shalom Katan, said that his department had acted according to the highest standards, and wouldn’t hold President Katzav guilty for his anger during these difficult times.

In truth, however, the President has a point. Until he is charged in court, he shouldn’t be convicted in the press. This type of media lynch has ruined many lives well before the verdict has been given in a court of law. It is possible that the women accusing Katzav of sexual assault have their own agenda, as he claims. It is also possible that political interests are at work that wants to embarrass or unseat him.
What is clear is that this trial has been conducted in public long before it has reached the courts. If nothing else the issue puts into harsh relief the power the media is currently wielding in the political arena, a media, which one must remember, is essentially interested in high ratings to help them raise the fees they can charge for advertising. They have no legal right to try a man in public.

The replacements for Moshe Katzav have already lined up. Dalia Itzik, the current Speaker of the Knesset, is slated to take over the position temporarily. Veteran Israeli politician Shimon Peres has also said he would run for the presidency.

Katzav, a long time Likud member, was perhaps the last example of the Likud legacy. Once the underworld and other undesirables entered the political arena, and the quality politicians left for private practice, the current rash of accusations, indictments and convictions was inevitable.