Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz on Tuesday ordered police to initiate a "preliminary" investigation into allegations by President Moshe Katsav that a former Beit Hanassi employee tried to blackmail him.
Although Mazuz did not go into detail, it appeared that the investigation would include the allegations made by the former employee against Katsav.
[For a Jerusalem Online video of events click here]
Mazuz said in the statement that he had made the decision after receiving a letter of clarification from Katsav earlier in the day. The president first told the attorney-general about the alleged extortion on July 5.
Earlier Tuesday, Mazuz held a meeting with State Attorney Eran Shendar, Deputy State Attorney for Criminal Affairs Yehoshua Lemberger and the head of the police Investigations and Intelligence Division, Cmdr. Yohanan Danino.
The attorney-general said all the participants agreed that the police should look into the affair.
Although there is no legal definition of a "preliminary investigation," such investigations have been conducted in the past regarding senior public officials, including Katsav's predecessor Ezer Weizman and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger.
In the current case, police will conduct a quick, superficial investigation to determine whether there is prima facie evidence to justify a full-scale investigation. On the basis of the police's preliminary findings, Mazuz will decide whether to order a regular investigation.
In Tuesday's letter to Mazuz, Katsav wrote, "I emphasized at the time that I doubted whether she really meant what she said, and presumed that she was motivated by her difficult personal, family, psychological and financial situation."
Katsav said that in an earlier letter that he had handed to Mazuz at the conclusion of their July 5 meeting, he wrote that he had been unable to determine whether anything of a criminal nature had taken place, although there had been times when had the impression that a crime might have been committed. In his opinion, he wrote, not every stormy scene replete with emotional outbursts was indicative of criminal intent.
Moreover, Katsav said, the threat that had accompanied the woman's demand for money had been based on the false premise that he issued pardons in return for payment, and that such funds were paid into foreign bank accounts.
Katsav reminded Mazuz that he had told him in their July 5 meeting that the former employee had said she knew that the president had received money from "pardon contractors" and that he kept it in accounts all over the world.
The absurdity of such a charge should be clear to someone like Mazuz, who was familiar with the pardon process, the president reiterated in Tuesday's letter.
On July 5, Katsav told Mazuz he did not think it appropriate to file a criminal complaint.
Katsav said he did not know who had leaked the story to the media. He also said the leaker had distorted the facts, making it appear that the extortion threat had been based on sexual harassment or forced indecent acts.
The ex-employee had never filed a sexual harassment complaint, Katsav said - not when she left Beit Hanassi, not when she worked there and not during the months that she spent abroad. Nor did she file a complaint after she returned to Israel. When he had met with her, Katsav said, the subject of sexual harassment had not been not raised at all.
Tuesday was not an easy day for Katsav in more ways than one. When he woke up in the morning, it was to the screaming double banner headlines of Ma'ariv.
The first headline read: "Another employee accuses the president." The second headline, in even larger type, declared: "Katsav sexually harassed me."
The report, which went into intimate detail, related to the time when Katsav was a government minister. It provoked wide-ranging discussion on radio and television all day long, with some people suggesting that the president suspend himself until an investigation is concluded, and others saying he should resign.
Katsav said he was incensed by the Ma'ariv story, and Beit Hanassi issued a statement to the effect that the Hebrew daily had not given the president a chance to defend himself.
The paper's editorial department had called the president's office late on Monday night to get a response to something that allegedly happened 15 years ago in the Transportation Ministry, without specifying the name of the woman who had accused him or any other identifying detail.
It was counter to all norms and ethics to publish so grave an accusation against the president of the state without adequate notice and a chance to prepare a response, the statement concluded.
Ma'ariv editor-in-chief Amnon Danker told Israel Radio Tuesday that the second woman had come forward after reading of the alleged sexual harassment of the former Beit Hanassi employee, with whose plight she identified.
Also Tuesday, Katsav and his wife Gila visited the family of abducted IDF Cpl. Gilad Shalit.
After a half-hour meeting with the Shalit family, Katsav called on the kidnappers of the young soldier to allow the Red Cross to visit him to verify that he was alive and well.
Katsav's spokeswoman Hagit Cohen confirmed on Tuesday evening that Katsav has not hired a lawyer but was still consulting with former justice minister David Liba'i.