http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20070124/...rael_president

By RAVI NESSMAN,
Associated Press Writer

25 minutes ago

Israeli President Moshe Katsav was considering whether to step down after the attorney general said he faced indictment on charges of rape and abuse of power the most serious accusation against a top Israeli official in the country's history.

Katsav's lawyers were defiant in the hours after the dramatic Justice Ministry announcement Tuesday, but Katsav was planning a news conference later Wednesday, and Israeli media were speculating that he would suggest a temporary leave from his post.

The allegation that Katsav used his position as Israel's ceremonial head of state a job supposed to serve as the nation's moral compass to force himself on his female employees has left the nation reeling.

"It is a sad day for the state of Israel," said lawmaker Benny Elon, who called on Katsav to resign to spare the nation further trauma. But Katsav gave no indication that he was preparing to step down, despite a wave of demands that he quit.

Attorney General Meni Mazuz's announcement that he intended to indict Katsav on a raft of charges was only the latest corruption scandal roiling the government, with accusations reaching as high as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Katsav, 61, has insisted he is innocent, and his lawyers said Tuesday they hoped to persuade Mazuz to change his mind before he formally indicts Katsav, a step that would make Katsav Israel's first sitting president to be charged with a crime. But many Israelis say the enormity of the scandal has already badly tainted the office of the presidency.

"He should be the symbol of Israel, the uniting person and an ideal model for all the politicians ... so this is a bad sign for Israeli politics," said Gabriel Sheffer, a political science professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

The presidency was once filled by Zionist legends and revered statesman. Albert Einstein declined an invitation to serve as the nation's first president, with the job eventually going to the scientist Chaim Weizmann, a Zionist leader who was instrumental in the creation of the Jewish state. The presidency has also gone to a biophysicist, a historian and other men of letters.

But the office, whose main responsibilities include receiving foreign diplomats and representing Israel at formal ceremonies, has dropped in esteem in recent years.

Katsav's predecessor, the outspoken war hero turned peacemaker Ezer Weizman, resigned in 2000 after the attorney general ruled he had improperly accepted more than $300,000 in gifts from a French millionaire. Weizman was never indicted.

Katsav had a far less lofty resume than his predecessors. He had been a low-level Cabinet minister and a Likud Party stalwart when the parliament chose him to be president in 2000 in a shocking upset over Nobel Peace Prize winner Shimon Peres, after a revered rabbi said a "vision" showed him that Katsav was favored by the heavens, swinging votes among believers.

But Katsav's relatively quiet presidency was rocked last summer when one of his female employees accused him of forcing her to have sex in his office. A flood of other women quickly came forward with similar accusations, painting the picture of a politician who had abused his power throughout his career.

In the face of the growing scandal, Katsav disappeared from public life, hunkering down in the president's compound in Jerusalem. He even briefly removed himself from office in September instead of presiding over the inauguration of a new chief justice for the Supreme Court.

On Tuesday, Mazuz said he had collected enough evidence to indict Katsav on charges of rape, harassment, abusing his power for sex, obstructing justice and illegally accepting gifts, stemming from his time as president and Cabinet minister.

Legal authorities said the charges could carry a sentence of more than 20 years in jail, though in most cases the defendant, if found guilty, would receive a five-to-10-year sentence. A final decision on the indictment would only be made after Katsav is given the opportunity to present his case.

Katsav's lawyers said they believed Mazuz would drop the indictment after hearing his side of the story.

"The president believes that everyone will see that he is the victim of false charges," said his lawyer David Libai. Some of the complainants were motivated by "revenge" after they were fired from their jobs, he said.

The president enjoys immunity while in office and could be tried only after his resignation, his impeachment by three-quarters of the parliament or the conclusion of his term, which ends this summer. Katsav had previously said he would step down if indicted.

Lawmakers from across the political spectrum including those from his old party called on him to resign.

"The fact that he is going to be indicted is neither good for our reputation abroad nor for the morale of this country, and I hope that the sooner the president himself draws the conclusion, the sooner he decides to leave office, the better off we all will be," said Colette Avital, of the Labor Party, mentioned as a possible successor.

Kineret Barashi, an attorney for one of the Katsav's accusers, praised the indictment, saying that it proved the no one was above the law in the Israeli justice system.

The Katsav scandal erupted amid a spate of other political scandals that have darkened the Israeli government's reputation.

Police opened a criminal investigation earlier this month into Olmert's involvement in the sale of a government-controlled bank in 2005. Several other high-level politicians have been implicated in separate scandals.

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