Editor’s Notes: The president vs. the police

By David Horovitz October 20, 2006

The body that we citizens rely upon to uphold law and order has asserted that the holder of our state’s most significant ceremonial office is a dangerous sexual offender whose presence in Beit Hanassi is an offense to us all

My sense of Moshe Katsav, whom I interviewed twice at considerable length in the months before the scandal of sexual improprieties (and worse) erupted around him, was of an earnest, almost hesitant figure – certainly given the prominence of his office.

He was unquestionably concerned with his image, but he was not a swaggering president, unlike some of his recent predecessors. One of those men, toward the end of his term, would insist on regaling reporters at intolerable length with excruciatingly egotistical accounts of how splendidly he had been treated on this or that foreign trip, how profoundly he had been appreciated and honored.

Katsav, by contrast, spent time trying to foster dialogue between Israeli Jewish and Arab leaders, attempting to galvanize the establishment of a formal parliamentary Israel-Diaspora policymaking institution and trying, with rare success, to keep out of partisan Israeli politicking.

It is because he managed to broadcast that sense of a president engaged in earnest endeavor on behalf of his nation that many Israelis, defying the ‘no smoke without fire’ assumption, were initially deeply skeptical about the allegations against him, and inclined to question the credibility of those who were emerging to characterize Katsav as a manipulative sexual predator.

With time, the emergence of more complainants and the leaking of more evidence have eaten away at Katsav’s credibility. But what has radically changed now is the nature of the forces aligned on either side of the argument. As of this week, the Katsav affair is no longer a case of the president’s word against those of the alphabet of alleged female victims, but the president against the police.

Throughout its investigation, the police had been carefully leaking purportedly incriminating material to the media, attempting to pressure Katsav and to encourage other alleged victims to come forward. For weeks now, it had been an open secret that the investigators’ recommendation to the state prosecution would be that Katsav be indicted. But now it is official. Of no binding legal value, but official nonetheless.

At the end of a protracted and rigorous investigation, the president of the State of Israel was unable to persuade the men and women in blue that he is innocent of a truly appalling range of alleged crimes. The body that we citizens rely upon to uphold law and order has asserted that the holder of our state’s most significant ceremonial office is a dangerous sexual offender whose presence in Beit Hanassi is an offense to us all.

As Katsav’s lawyers have rightly and repeatedly pointed out, their client is only the latest in a string of high-ranking public figures, including several prime ministers, whose prosecution the police has urged at the end of prolonged, headline-making probes. Time after time, attorneys-general have rejected those urgings and the cases have been closed.

In some instances, notably the ‘Greek Island’ affair that saw the police investigate then-prime minister Ariel Sharon on suspicion of bribe-taking, attorneys-general have been at odds not only with the police but with their own hierarchy in the state prosecution system. In closing the file on the Greek Island affair, Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz was almost derisive about the lack of evidence to merit an indictment, an extraordinary state of affairs given the conviction of so many of his experienced colleagues that there was a case to answer.

Some weeks ago, a figure who has worked very closely with Katsav told me he was certain that the case would end in indictment. Although desperately wanting to believe that Katsav’s absolute denials were absolutely genuine, this source predicted that the police ‘will never let go of this and admit defeat after coming this far,’ and that the starting point for some of Mazuz’s considerations would be very different from the Greek Island affair. If an attorney-general decided to remove a serving prime minister from office to stand trial, amid all the political uncertainties constantly surrounding Israel, he had better be 110 percent sure he was going to achieve a conviction. Removing a president? With all due respect, this source asserted, the stakes are rather lower.

Yes and no. Yes, the State of Israel would trundle on essentially unaffected by the early departure of its eighth president from Beit Hanassi and his subsequent conviction. A figure once quite widely respected would be reviled, both for the crimes and for the callous attempt to brazen them out. The public would lose a little more faith in its leaders; if that nice, seemingly gentle Moshe Katsav is a sexual menace, then whom can you trust?

But it might draw comfort in the demonstrable application of appropriate behavioral norms, and console itself with the recollection that even American presidents, paragons though they should be, have been known to pitch that great nation into sexual scandal, albeit less grave. And even though Katsav has insisted on clinging to office, turning the usually unremarkable formalities of the presidency into a daily farce, there has been little evidence of a desire to exploit the scandal to do away with the institution altogether.

But the stakes are immensely high, nonetheless, in terms of public faith in the police and prosecuting authorities. If Katsav, after so sweeping and severe a police recommendation, is deemed by Mazuz to have no case to answer, would that mean that Mazuz is corrupt in not prosecuting him or that the men and women in blue are corrupt in having sought his indictment? One or the other. And if he is indicted and no conviction obtained, the capabilities and proprieties of the police and state prosecution hierarchy would also fall under the heaviest of shadows.

And to think that, mere months ago, the biggest controversy surrounding President Katsav was his argument with Reform rabbis about which title he was prepared to use when addressing them.

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