A president’s rape verdict arouses strong passion —
both angry and vindicated — among Israelis.
Tel Aviv — For decades Moshe Dayan has been lionized by Israelis for his role as a top army man and a leading statesman, while being forgiven for his reputation as a womanizer.
But if the escapades of the former army chief of staff were challenged in the court that convicted late President Moshe Katsav last week, the Israeli founding father might have found himself in jail.
That was the reality bearing down on Katsav himself this week as his defense team mulled the prospects for an appeal to the Supreme Court. With sentencing expected in a matter of weeks, a debate started this week over how harsh the former president’s punishment should be.
Katsav was convicted on two counts of forcible rape: for twice raping an employee while he was minister of tourism, for sexually abusing and harassing another woman and for harassing a third while he was president.
Women’s rights advocates described the rape trial as the culmination of a generational shift in a society that has historically indulged the machismo of its leading men.
The decision of the three-judge Tel Aviv District Court panel to embrace in full the narratives of three former Katsav employees struck a blow against an older culture of permissiveness which put the burden of proof on women in cases of alleged sexual abuse.
The court’s ruling is “revolutionary and radical,” said Anat Saragusti, a television journalist turned women’s rights advocate. “It said that [Katsav] lied all the way. [The judges] completely adopted the discourse of the feminist aid organizations that tried to resolve the apparent contradiction between the fact they were his victims and continued to work with him.”
Saragusti suggested that the verdict could help change an office culture that originates in the Israeli military.
“This is a people’s army, which seeps out into the general society,” said Saragusti. “The situation in the army is that you have grown-up men with young women in their 20s doing secretarial work. They are used to having services by women and treating them as objects.”
Yofi Tirosh, a lecturer at the Tel Aviv University law school, said that women who complain about sexual offenses would no longer be viewed as “liars” and “manipulators.”
The verdict was seen in Israel as a mixed blessing. On one hand, no official of Katsav’s stature had ever been convicted of such a serious crime. At the same time, officials congratulated Israel’s law enforcement system for proving that all citizens are equal before the law.
And yet critics pointed out that had it not been for Katsav’s decision to first allege extortion by an employee, and then reject a plea bargain struck with the attorney general, the groundbreaking case would have never gotten its day in court.
“Ultimately it is Katsav who is responsible for its outcome,” said Einat Wilf, a Labor Party Knesset member. “The rumors existed, the behavior was known, but if he wasn’t responsible for his own undoing no one would have done something.”
The fallout from the verdict last Thursday continued to be felt this week, as women’s advocates petitioned the attorney general to consider criminal charges for Katsav cronies who helped him keep a lid on his exploits.
Israelis also began second-guessing politicians and reporters who knew of the stories but failed to bring the charges public.
“No longer will journalists and high-ranking colleagues of these powerful men say, ‘Oh well, it’s part of the privilege of being a high-ranking official.’ It’s a crime like every crime,” said Yofi Tirosh, a lecturer in law and feminism at Tel Aviv University.
“But when it comes to women, it’s like, ‘Well, [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy does it, [Italian Prime Minister Silvio] Berlusconi does it, so why not Katsav?”
Workers at the Tel Aviv Rape Crisis Center reported a spike in calls to the organization’s hotline. According to the government’s civil service commission, the number of complaints of sexual abuse surged by 40 percent in 2010 from 2009.
“There’s no doubt that the Katsav case has had an especially significant contribution,” said Michal Rozine, director of the Israeli center for victims of sexual violence, according to the Haaretz newspaper.
The decision aroused strong emotions among Israelis.
“I was happy that the judges didn’t give him any leniency, and used the most blunt words possibly,” said Ayala Kantor, a 34-year-old kindergarten teacher. “It will contain harassment, because men will control themselves after seeing what happened to Katsav.”
In Katsav’s hometown of Kiryat Malachi, however, residents were predictably more loyal to their favorite son.
“Our children were in school together. He’s a nice man. It’s hard to believe that there was a rape. If I can’t believe [Katsav] I can’t believe my own son,” said Hana, a 51-year-old neighbor. “He made a revolution in Kiryat Malachi. Before him there were no municipal services or buses in town.”
A pack of journalists on Tuesday staked out Katsav’s modest residence, which sits behind a wall of Jerusalem stone and a tiny row of trees that create a security cordon. After hours of consulting with advisers, Katsav did not make a final decision on an appeal.
In the center of Kiryat Malachi, shops are boarded up on a plaza outside the faded municipality building. Some of those who saw Katsav as a hero alleged that Israel’s Ashkenazi elite promoted the rape case out of fear that he would run for prime minister.
Another resident, Tzion Sharabi, said the parliament should pass a law setting a three-month statute of limitations for sexual assault complaints.
“These things always existed. But they were always dealt with behind closed doors,” said the retired military driver.
Meanwhile, anticipation of a long jail term has already kicked up questions of possible clemency.
Yossi Beilin, a former leader of the left-wing Meretz Party, said Katsav shouldn’t go to jail because the country doesn’t need to see a president in jail.
Law lecturer Tirosh, however, said Katsav’s status as a former president should be a factor making the punishment more harsh, so as to deter future officials from exploiting their positions.
“I don’t think that his public service should sweeten the appeal, but to the contrary,” she said. “We’re only left to see.”
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