Source AP ©

Israeli President Katsav resigns to avoid rape charges

Israeli President Moshe Katsav is to resign on Friday as part of a plea bargain that drops rape allegations and the threat of jail time in return for pleading guilty to lesser charges.

The deal announced Thursday was a dramatic reversal by Attorney General Meni Mazuz, who had announced in January that he planned to take Katsav to trial on charges of rape and other sex crimes - counts that could have landed him in prison for 20 years.

Katsav's accusers, all former female employees, condemned the deal, which gives him a suspended prison sentence in exchange for guilty pleas to sexual harassment and obstruction of justice. He also has to pay damages to his four accusers.

Claims that Katsav used his position as Israel's ceremonial head of state to force himself on women were the most serious allegations ever brought against an Israeli leader and intensified growing worries about misconduct by a swelling list of officials.

At a televised news conference Thursday after the deal was announced, one of his accusers insisted Katsav raped her, calling him a "pervert" and "serial sex offender" who turned her into a sex slave.

"I am pained by the attorney general's decision because it gives legitimacy to sex offenders," said the woman, whose image was electronically blurred and her identity concealed.

The deal was widely seen as a victory for Katsav, who stepped aside from his duties in January to fight the rape allegations but didn't resign. His seven-year term expires next month but he will resign Friday morning as part of the deal, his spokesman, Ronen Tzur, told The Associated Press.

Parliament Speaker Dalia Itzik has served as acting president since January and will continue to do so until President-elect Shimon Peres is inaugurated next month.

Tzur said Katsav agreed to the plea bargain "after the smear campaign of the past year and in order to spare his family the pain" of a prolonged legal process.

Mazuz said the deal came at Katsav's request and was finalized just moments before it was announced. He said some of the allegations would have been difficult to prove in court, adding that the president's lawyers presented new evidence at a special hearing last month.

The attorney general said he also took into consideration the damage a prolonged trial would have caused to "the national institution of the presidency and the image of the state of Israel."

The Katsav scandal was only one of several roiling the government, with allegations of corruption and sexual misconduct tainting other leaders, including questionable business deals involving Ehud Olmert before he became prime minister.

Former Justice Minister Haim Ramon lost his job this year and was convicted of an indecent act for forcibly kissing a female soldier. Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson, a longtime Olmert friend, is under investigation in an embezzlement case and has suspended himself from office.

Tzahi Hanegbi, a powerful lawmaker and Olmert ally, faces charges of fraud, bribery and perjury in connection with appointments he made as a Cabinet minister.

Katzav's plea bargain was criticized by many.

Attorney Kineret Barashi accused Mazuz of giving Katsav favored treatment.

"There is no public interest in reaching a plea bargain and reducing his sentence just because we're talking about the president, and only because we're concerned about how we'll look to the world," she told Channel 2 TV.

Miriam Schler, at the Rape Crisis Center in Tel Aviv, called the deal a "travesty."

"Basically, it gives a message to women who were raped and attacked or sexually assaulted by men in positions of power that it's better for them to sit at home and be quiet and not tell anyone about it because it's not worth it for them to actually file a complaint with the police," Schler said.