In a parliamentary government like Israel's, pretty much all executive power resides in the Prime Minister. The office of President carries certain responsibilities, such as signing treaties and appointing the head of the central bank, but it's largely a ceremonial post. Israel's head of state is basically there to make the country look good.
So when Moshe Katsav, who held the office from 2000 to 2007, was convicted of rape last December, it did not enhance the dignity of the office. Nor did the outburst Tuesday morning in the Tel Aviv courtroom where he had just been sentenced to seven years in prison. "You are mistaken, ma'am, you are mistaken!" Katsav cried to one of the three judges he faced. "You have committed an injustice! The judgment is wrong! You allowed lies to emerge victorious! The women know that they lied! They know that they lied, and they are laughing at the judgment!"
The jurists took turns trying to calm the defendant — "Sir, sit down quietly, with dignity," one of them said — then returned to reading out the sentence. In addition to jail time, it calls for Katsav to pay 100,000 shekels (about $28,500) to the woman he was found guilty of raping when she worked for him at the Tourism Ministry, which the Likud Party loyalist ran in the late 1990s. Katsav also must pay the equivalent of $7,100 to one of two former employees of the President's residence whom he was convicted of sexually harassing. His attorneys announced he would appeal.
In the spasm of agonized national self-reflection that immediately ensued, one positive note was sounded again and again: in a country that still regards itself as the only democracy in the Middle East, "nobody is above the law, not even a former President," as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put it.
In fact, Israelis have grown accustomed to the long arm of the law reaching into the highest levels of government. Netanyahu was elected to an office vacated by Ehud Olmert, whose trial for corruption is under way in Jerusalem. The nation's political landscape is stippled with former officials widely expected to resume their careers after waiting out penalties.
The real import of the Katsav conviction is the offense. Israel once enjoyed a reputation as an early exemplar of women's rights. Golda Meir was elected Prime Minister in the 1960s. Young women wait at bus stops wearing olive green fatigues and carrying M-16s, military service being compulsory for both genders.
But in the corridors of power, it's been a man's world for generations. "This is considered a feminist country? That's something new to me," laughs Irit Gazit, who runs the legal aid bureau for the Women's International Zionist Organization. An expert on sexual harassment, Gazit has been conducting workshops for the Israel Defense Forces. With its heavily male officer corps and legions of young female conscripts, it has often had to deal with accustions of harassment, yet it remains a crucial role model for a society that reveres its military.
In the gradual change of public attitudes, women's rights advocates say a pivot point was the 2001 conviction of Yitzhak Mordechai, a retired major general convicted of indecency after being accused of unwelcome advances by a string of female subordinates. "While we were having coffee, he forced himself on me," one testified. "He lay on top of me and tried to put his hand inside my blouse. I said to him, 'Itzik, what are you doing?' " The accusations came in what would be a familiar pattern: news of the first complaint was followed by a wave of others. "It was a common assumption that if you were in a powerful position, you could do whatever you want," says Gazit. "It was common in the army."
The assumption has grown a bit less common with the publicity surrounding each new case. And there have been a lot of them. In one week last November, the nominee for national police commissioner was undone by a complaint from a woman who said he had sexually assaulted her at a conference. After another women alleged he had raped and drugged her, the candidate claimed the incident was not only consensual but a threesome. Meanwhile the director of the public security ministry resigned, acknowledging a relationship with a subordinate "that went beyond the bounds of work."
Meanwhile, Katsav's yearlong trial proceeded largely out of view, the three-judge panel barring most press coverage after sensationalized coverage of the investigation. The verdict included the judges' tart observation that the Iranian-born Katsav had attempted to frame his accusers, followed by the court's release of audio tapes supporting the allegation. "Now is a time of change," says Gazit. "We need to educate men and women both. I hope cases like Katsav's really serve this purpose."
There is evidence they do. In January, the civil service commission reported that sexual harassment complaints were up 40% over a year earlier, a surge attributed largely to increasing awareness of the issue. Rape crisis counselors referred to it as "the Katsav effect."