The woman who brought down Moshe Katzav

The conviction of Israel's former president, Moshe Katzav, for rape and sexual offences, shook the Jewish state. The woman who spoke out against him now speaks to the JC

By Jenni Frazer, January 8, 2011
The woman who gave closed door testimony against Moshe Katzav (left); the JC has obscured her image at her request. Right is her then boss, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon

The woman who gave closed door testimony against Moshe Katzav (left); the JC has obscured her image at her request. Right is her then boss, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon

An Israeli political adviser has spoken openly to the JC about her ordeal at the hands of Moshe Katzav, the ex-president whose conviction for rape has stunned the country.

Her story spans 20 years at the heart of the political establishment and her testimony was crucial in his conviction by three judges on charges of rape and sexual harassment against female subordinates.

In a full and frank interview, she told how the kippah-wearing father-of-five professed his love for her, harassed and humiliated her before accosting her in a hotel room.

And she revealed previously unknown details of the plea bargain offered to Katzav during the height of the legal proceedings two years ago.

The deal would have allowed him to plead guilty to lesser charges of sexual harassment in return for a suspended jail sentence. But he turned it down, insisting he was innocent and would fight the charges.

But the woman, who asked to be known only by her initials, OK, presented a personal, self-financed petition to the High Court challenging a clause which would have absolved Katzav of any disgrace.

"I could not have that," she said. "If 'disgrace' was removed from the plea bargain, it would have allowed him to hold public office again. That presented the possibility of him becoming, say, chairman of the Jewish Agency, and starting his behaviour all over again."

He told me he was in love with me. I kept telling him I was in love with my husband but he was extremely persistent

She believes it was her challenge on the issue that made Katzav reject the plea bargain - and led to his ultimate fall last week.

OK is as savvy as they come. She has worked as a media adviser to two prime ministers, Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu. Bright, funny and confident, she has been part of the political scene for more than two decades.

It was in 1989, while working as Mr Netanyahu's spokesperson at the UN, that she met Katzav during that year's election campaign. A few months later, aged 29 and married with a young daughter, she joined him as his media adviser when he became Transport Minister.

Speaking this week in Tel Aviv, as dozens of Israeli journalists pursued her, she told me: "When I began working with him he was very pleasant. He was fatherly towards me. He was very interested in my thoughts, my feelings. He wanted to know about my friends, my family. I really felt that I had the ideal boss. He made me feel like a queen. I was invited everywhere, even to the most secret and closed meetings.

"About seven months after I began working at the Transport Ministry, Katzav came into my office one morning and told me that he could not sleep all night, because he fell in love and he could not stop fantasising about me. He said it was absolutely crucial that he made this confession.

"I was very embarrassed. But I was young and naive. I believed him. I did not know how to react. His declaration came completely out of the blue, but I was totally convinced of his honesty.

"I absolutely believed that he was in love with me. He told me he found me very beautiful, attractive, interesting, intelligent, and he found himself in love. He didn't plan it, but he was in love. He made a statement, and waited for my reaction. And, after all, it could happen, people did meet in offices and fall in love, even if they were married.

"The only thing I could think of saying, without hurting his feelings, that it was not mutual, was that I was very much in love with my husband. I repeated this numerous times over the period I worked with Katzav.

"He was persistent. He wanted to know how I felt - and that he couldn't resist my attractiveness, and would I mind him touching me. I said no, but nothing helped. He was extremely persistent. He wanted to know, did I have feelings for him, did I find him attractive, maybe I didn't find him attractive because I found Bibi Netanyahu more attractive. I felt I was being investigated.

"I felt extremely restless and pressured. My husband began to suspect that my boss was very excited by my presence, but he laughed it off.

"I really felt that there was no way out. I had a great job, but it felt as though there had been an industrial accident at work. He constantly asked if he could touch my bosom, in an obsessive plea.

"Then I discovered I was expecting my second child. I thought, I will tell Katzav I am pregnant. That way I can keep my job but my boss will respect me as a working mother. I thought it was a win-win situation.

"To my surprise he was not delighted at the news. Instead, he shouted at me, how could I do this to him, just as our relationship was starting, and he said I had ruined it.

"I was devastated by his reaction and I began to realise that Katzav was cutting me off. I no longer had access to the diary, I did not go on trips with the minister, I stopped being invited to parties or meetings.

"It wasn't just him that cut me adrift, it was his immediate circle, who made me feel an unwanted outcast. I became persona non grata in the office.

"Later, I realised that they all knew. At the time I had no idea, but I thought it was his reaction to being rejected.

"At the time, there was no law in Israel about sexual harassment - we didn't even use the term - but I was completely unaware of the possibilities of being able to do anything about it. Besides, it never entered my mind to hurt him because he was 'so much in love' with me. It's a joke now, I know."

By the time she was eight months pregnant, her boss's attitude became more paternal and their working relationship resumed. She assumed the infatuation was over and had no idea that this might be part of "a longer term strategy".

She gave birth to her second daughter in early 1991. Katzav immediately visited her at home, bringing an engraved silver kiddush cup. During her maternity leave, he constantly told her how much she was needed at the ministry. "I gave him the benefit of the doubt," she said. "I thought he was genuine."

But when she got back to work, all that changed.

"He told me that I was so beautiful, I had got my figure back so quickly - he made it obvious to everyone that I was the favourite. It was embarrassing, but I thought, well, it's part of his shtick. He was very unsophisticated in delivering his thoughts and feelings."

She recalled one day in her Tel Aviv office, when she was working head bent over her desk writing a press release. Suddenly she turned her head to find Katzav behind her, performing a sexual act and begging her to join in.

"I was extremely embarrassed, but in fact I burst out laughing. I thought it was pathetic and humiliating for him. But it was not something to make me resign. I did not treat the incident as some breaking point."

But it did not end there. "A few months later, there was a political crisis and Katzav, in a practice common among politicians who lived outside Jerusalem, had taken a hotel room in the city. All the aides were discussing the situation but when everyone left he asked me to stay, to decide what we should tell the journalists."

No sooner had the door closed behind the other aides when Katzav pulled her over to the bed and began assaulting her, grabbing at her body.

"I tried to shove him off. He was persistent. But so was I."

She finally struggled to her feet and left the room in a rage. "This was the end of any kind of relationship with Moshe Katzav. I was very blunt and angry in my reaction - and again I became persona non grata."

Nineteen ninety-two saw the "avalanche" election in which Yitzchak Rabin swept to power. OK was one of the few senior women in the office, but, again, Katzav's inner circle began to cut her out.

"The gossip about me in the office was that I was a slut and bad at my job. But by that stage all the women in the office were only referred to in sexual terms," she said.

Katzav's aides travelled to meetings in chauffeur-driven cars while leaving her to take three buses. Humiliation and insults piled up but she was convinced that if she left, as she felt Katzav clearly wanted, it would be the end of her career.

"I was really afraid of him and what he could do. I tried to keep it secret if I went for other jobs but I found out later that he had tried to spoil my chances at every other position.

"I began to realise the kind of person he was and then I learned that he was harassing other girls. Now there was no benefit of doubt for 'Katzav in love'."

It was also in 1992 that she discovered she was pregnant for a third time. Since it became obvious that she would never work with Katzav again, she told her husband and close friends the full extent of the sexual harassment she had suffered.

"No one thought I should do anything other than what I did - wait until the torture was over."

She recalled the final days of the Katzav Transport Ministry as women began to talk openly to each other about what had happened to them: "It was like the last days of Pompeii. In fact I caught him with one of the girls in the office. She was hiding behind a pillar in the room, putting her bra back on.

"So I finally realised who he was. But not one girl came forward."

And she is not sure anyone would have come forward had it not been for the fact that Katzav, when president, complained to Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz that one of his rape victims was trying to blackmail him,

"I would never have dreamed of complaining," she said. "Part of that was that I was in politics where you see harsh things. But my success in that world depended on my being discreet under all circumstances.

"But when the gossip was that the woman was mentally unstable, a whore who was desperately pursuing him, I was furious; I feared for this woman. Finally, I could not keep quiet."

Friends had also begun pressing her to tell her story. She spoke to the editor of an Israeli paper who published her anonymous account on his front page. That was a catalyst for others to come forward. Eventually, ten gave evidence.

But only one of the girls from the Transport Ministry did so. OK said there was a "huge difference" between her, a married, educated Ashkenazi woman and the "young religious Sephardi girls" who formed Katzav's usual prey.

"They all confessed to me, but they couldn't bring themselves to reveal to their families what had happened. So they lied to the police."

The police investigation began the day before the outbreak of the second Lebanon war. So it was six months before officers made contact to ask her about the events of nearly two decades earlier.

"My instinct told me that I was opening Pandora's Box," she said. "But I felt I had to defend the girl he was complaining about, though I had, and still have, no idea who she is.

"I just felt it was the right thing to do, come what may."

Her testimony took a week: Katzav had many supporters, friends and family in court. She says she was told she could bring one friend. Her husband was supposed to give evidence after her, but was not called.

She had to tell her daughters, her barmitzvah-age son and her elderly parents what was about to take place. She found telling her father "mortifying and shaming" and is convinced that the difficulty in telling families stops many women speaking out about sexual abuse.

"The police were wonderful," she said. "The prosecution was great. But the harshest experience was at the hands of his lawyers. They knew that everything I was saying was true so they tried character assassination. They tried to tear me apart, to use every degrading way of humiliating me and destroying my credibility.

"They accused me of being a bad mother because I went back to work four months after my maternity leave. They called me a manipulative liar. But everything they called me was used by the judges in their verdict against

"For me, as an educated married woman, he had to woo me and court me for months. I was very assertive and it took him two full years to dare to touch me. And I felt there was the sin of hubris; the higher he got in his positions, the more he dared. He dared more at the Tourism Ministry. Once he was president, he could do anything. He was at the point where he could assume he could complain about the women.

"I wanted the truth and my justice to become known. What punishment he receives is totally irrelevant. I wanted my humiliation and harassment to be acknowledged and repaired, for all to know. For what happens to him, to coin a phrase, frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."

She notes with some asperity that when she decided to speak out, she was working with Mr Netanyahu - "I didn't need to do this. Why did I need all this mess? But Bibi said I was doing a very courageous thing."

And not one person in her immediate circle - "not my husband, not my parents, not my daughters or my teenage son" - suggested that she should not come forward because Katzav was the president.

With some reluctance, she acknowledged her belief that Katzav's wife Gila had been aware of her husband's behaviour. "But I am not ready to judge," she said.

But there was one more step for her to take, a "cleansing of the soul", as she describes it.

She went to the Israeli branch of the University of Derby and wrote a master's thesis in cognitive behavioural psychology -"postponed reaction to sexual harassment in the workplace".

For her, this thesis, now to be expanded into a book, has helped her deal with the central question - why did she keep silent for so long?

"The amount of denial in sexual harassment cases is unbelievable," she says. "In my case I've been in denial for 20 years. When I heard the verdict being read out, only then did I understand the level of denial I had felt. It was an immense feeling of relief and happiness -- the sort of happiness you feel as a child when you think that the world is a good place to live in.

"They tried to doubt us, why we did not speak out. It is a sad case without a real resolution. Even if you bring justice out, the scar remains.

"But I still think that there are a lot of men who think that this guy was unlucky to be caught. As Israelis, we should be very proud of such a verdict against Katzav. But we are still not at the stage where we think as a society that sexual harassment should not happen in the workplace."

Last updated: 5:30pm, January 8 2011