Moshe Katzav: Shock and anger sweep Israel - but also pride

A victim’s tale: the woman whose damning evidence brought down Katzav tells her FULL story in this week’s JC – on sale now

By Anshel Pfeffer, January 6, 2011
Going down: Katzav leaving court after the announcement of the verdict last week

Going down: Katzav leaving court after the announcement of the verdict last week

Moshe Katzav is planning to appeal against his conviction - but he may have to do it from a prison cell.

The judges' damning verdict leaves little doubt that he will be handed a lengthy prison term before he is able to take his case to Israel's Supreme Court.

But despite fierce criticism of the conduct of the trial by Katzav and his supporters, opinion polls suggest most Israelis think he received fair treatment.

The saga has run for four years but the verdict of the court, headed by Judge George Karra, which totally demolished defence claims and upheld the victims' accounts of violent rape and other sexual assaults, was an earthquake nonetheless.

Most public figures expressed dismay that a former president had been convicted of such acts. But there was a sense of pride that Israeli democracy and its justice system was capable of putting a former head of state on trial.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said: "This is a sad day for Israel and its citizens. But the court has sent out two very clear messages; that each one of us is equal before the law and that a woman has complete rights over her body."

Lashing out: Protesters railing against Katzav outside Tel Aviv District Court

Lashing out: Protesters railing against Katzav outside Tel Aviv District Court

Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, speaking at a swearing-in of new judges, said: "A verdict was handed down today that cannot be ignored. It is a sad day but it is also a day that emphasises more than any other the equality before the law and the meaning of your oath today - not to show favour or privilege in the court."

Katzav left the court without a word to the press and is yet to release a statement. But his son, Ariel, said: "We will continue to be proud of our father and follow him with our heads held high.

"We regret the fact the court sentenced him on the basis of rumours and hunches.

"We believe that in future generations, everyone will know that Moshe Katzav, the eighth president of Israel, was innocent."

While many Israelis were initially content to believe he was a victim of politically-motivated rumours, the sentence left few convinced of his innocence.

He was convicted of two counts of rape, one of an obscene act, one of sexual harassment and one of attempting to subvert the course of justice.

Judges rejected attempts to discredit the testimony of the victims, including "A" from the Tourism Ministry, who accused him of raping her twice and sexually abusing her, and "H" and "L" from the President's Office, who accused him of sexual harassment. He was acquitted on only one charge, that he harassed one of the witnesses.

Judge Karra said Katzav's version of events was "riddled with lies". The public were shocked not only by the explicit details of the sexual attacks but the "mafia-style" way in which members of the his entourage tried to intimidate and buy off witnesses.

A survey by the Midgam Project at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Centre showed that 73 per cent of Israelis believed that Katzav had received a fair trial and that the judges had reached their verdict on the basis only of the facts.

There is some support still for the former president within the religious and strictly Orthodox communities, among whom 42 per cent believe that the judges were influenced by the media. Only 12 per cent of secular and traditional Israelis hold that view.

In a lecture this week at Tel Aviv University, one of Katzav's lawyers, Tzion Amir, said: "The media affected the trial, the media affected the public's position. Was the court influenced? You have to assume that it was."

Katzav's defence team have yet to announce whether they plan to appeal the verdict and they are expected to wait for the sentence, which is likely to be heavy as rape carries a minimum of four years in prison.

The Tel Aviv District Court decided not to put Katzav under house arrest, and made do with an order forbidding him to leave the country.

Former Justice Minister Yossi Beilin drew angry responses when he called on Tuesday for clemency. He said: "His sentence should be commuted. I don't think that we as Israelis should have to see our president in jail. His real punishment is in the public arena."

Ironically, the man who will have to consider clemency for Katzav is the current President, Shimon Peres, the man Katzav defeated in the 2000 election for the presidency.

Read an exclusive interview with one of the victims in this week's JC

Last updated: 5:30pm, January 8 2011