Women protest against Israel's president.

JERUSALEM (WOMENSENEWS)–Female politicians are leading the chorus for embattled Israeli President Moshe Katsav to resign or be impeached from office.

Their actions follow an announcement from the country’s attorney general this week that he planned to indict the country’s eighth president on a number of charges, including rape, sexual assault and abuse of power.

Attorney General Menachem Mazuz has said he will first allow Katsav a hearing to respond to the allegations, which stem from complaints from at least eight women who worked for him during his presidency or with him in previous governmental positions.

The president stepped aside Jan. 25 after a parliamentary committee narrowly granted his request to be temporarily suspended, thwarting an accelerating effort to launch impeachment proceedings. The position is primarily ceremonial.

Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik of the centrist Kadima Party is serving in his stead during his three-month suspension.

Israeli President Moshe Katsav at Jan. 24 press conference.

Knesset Member Shelly Yachimovitch of the Labor Party expressed dismay at Parliament’s move to sidestep impeachment.

“They have allowed the president to continue (his) presidency although he’s accused of very serious suspicions of sexual offenses,” she said “It is a very sad day for Israeli democracy.”

Katsav, who is married, has five children and has served as president since August 2000, vigorously denies any wrong-doing but has said he would resign if officially charged.

According to Israeli law, Katsav enjoys immunity and cannot be tried while in office. Thus formal charges must wait until he resigns or his term naturally ends in July.

Knesset Women Launch Petition

Knesset Member Zahava Galon of the leftist Meretz Party, who serves on the Commission on the Status of Women, spearheaded a parliament petition to launch impeachment proceedings against the president following the attorney general’s announcement.

Galon collected 30 signatures from Knesset members, 10 more than needed.

After the Jan. 25 decision allowing the temporary suspension, however, Galon’s office said it would be too difficult to impeach him, which requires a three-fourths majority, since some Knesset members were appeased by the suspension.

“I’m really, really frustrated. I thought we would have a chance to impeach the president but some members prefer a temporary suspension,” Galon told Women’s eNews minutes before the committee’s vote. “I don’t accept temporary suspension. I think he should go home.”

A poll conducted by the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth found that 71 percent of respondents wanted Katsav to resign immediately, while 29 percent said he didn’t have to. The survey, published Jan. 25, had a margin of error of 4.4 percent.

Although Katsav has not been charged with any crime, top government officials–including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Affairs Minister Tzipi Livni and Education Minister Yuli Tamir–have also called for his immediate resignation.

Criticism has gradually mounted from politicians and women’s groups in Israel since some of the allegations surfaced last July.

Katsav is believed to be the first high-ranking government official here to be publicly accused of rape or severe violence while in office.

“We have had before decisions regarding criminal offenses, which were committed by top politicians, but all of them were related to white-collar crime like embezzlement,” said Dr. Mimi Ajzenstadt, who teaches in the department of criminology within the Faculty of Law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Suspension Allows Immunity

Knesset Member Nadia Hilo of the Labor Party said she opposes a temporary suspension because it still affords Katsav immunity.

It’s important to send a clear message to the public that the alleged behavior is not allowed, she said, and that “even if he’s a president, he has to be punished.”

“The Knesset must begin on Sunday impeachment,” she said. “That is my opinion.”

On Thursday morning, about 40 protesters from a number of women’s organizations stood across from the President’s Residence, chanting slogans in Hebrew such as “Only resignation, not suspension” and “Women are not ownerless property, Katsav, Katsav resign.”

Shirli Shavit, director of the international department of the women’s organization Na’Amat Israel, said the scandal is an embarrassment for her children and for the Jewish world.

“I’m not saying he’s guilty, but take responsibility at this point,” the mother of three said. “You are the symbol of the state of Israel and it can’t be that you can continue being the president when such issues are against you . . . He symbolizes the Jewish state. We don’t want a symbol at this point of a person that is accused of rape.”

Anti-Rape Group Calls for Resignation

The Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel placed newspaper ads earlier this week calling for the president’s resignation.

The association of nine rape crisis centers around the country offers rape hotlines, escort to medical treatments, support groups and educational programs in schools, the army and civil service.

The education programs are intended to help people “understand how to conduct healthy relationships, which are based on agreement, partnership and love, not on violence and coercion and similar things, which the president is accused of,” says association spokesperson Sharon Mayevsky.

In the first nine months of 2006, the association saw a 20 percent increase from the same period in the previous year in the number of appeals for aid. A total of nearly 28,000 requests were made to the association.

Hebrew University’s Ajzenstadt said the scandal and the government’s reaction could carry a message that rape is something that society is not going to tolerate and may encourage more women to seek help.

On the other hand, she says, the outcry is largely a reaction to the president and his alleged behavior, and not necessarily an outcry against violence women face in the workplace and elsewhere on an ongoing basis.

“Does it really symbolize that the society as a whole condemns rape? I don’t think so,” she said. “I think we are really far away from something like this. Maybe it’s a small step forward.”

Brenda Gazzar is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem.

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