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Theoretically, President Moshe Katsav could still be exonerated in court. But aside from the impact that a not guilty verdict would have for Katsav and his family personally, for the country it will have been too late. Katsav might eventually evade the stiff penalties accorded by law for the offenses with which he is being charged, but his presidency is over - our second consecutive head of state forced out in disgrace.
The damage to the highest office in the land will not end with Katsav's departure. Whatever the outcome of his trial, it will be an ugly and vicious saga, filled with embarrassing, intimate details of the goings-on within the walls of the state mansion in Rehavia, and it will cause many to question the necessity of the institution.
It should have been easy to summarize Katsav's term in office, at least his first six years. None of the initiatives he launched had much concrete effect and his influence in public affairs was negligible, but he received a great deal of credit for restoring stability and decorum to a presidency buffeted during Ezer Weizman's tumultuous years. But recent months have destroyed that sole achievement.
Without any significant powers or responsibilities, the president should be a focal point, providing a sense of identity for a divided nation. Instead, what we'll remember of the last two presidents is Weizman's meddling in politics, finally ended by the Saroussi financial scandal, and the deep shame of Katsav's ignominious demise.
Why should we bother at all with the business of electing a new president? Let's just convert the mansion into cheap housing for young couples.
But a presidential election there will be. Though there is considerable support for electoral reform that would abolish the dual positions of president and prime minister, there is no way that the necessary legislation can be completed in time. And, surprisingly perhaps, there are still a few people willing to run for the job, despite the almost unbearable scrutiny that a prospective president can now expect into all of his or her affairs.
This will almost certainly deter all but the most seasoned and hard-boiled politicians, immune after years under the spotlights in the media arena. Names mentioned in the past like Prof. Amnon Rubinstein and Rabbi Yisrael Lau are almost certain not to appear on the presidential shortlist. The job simply isn't worth the risk of humiliation.
Labor's Collette Avital and the Likud's Reuven Rivlin are two MKs who feel they have nothing to hide and are so far the only ones to have taken the plunge and announced their candidacies. The lack of a candidate from the ruling party is another sign of Kadima's weakening grip on power; Deputy Premier Shimon Peres, the eternal candidate, is still waiting for progress on the bill to turn the Knesset vote into an open one; without it, he is loath to risk yet another electoral defeat.
If Peres doesn't run, his prot g , Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik, very soon to be the caretaker president, might well announce her candidacy. But unlike her predecessor on the legislature's podium, the avuncular Rivlin, the sharp-tongued Itzik has made few friends across the aisle and her chances against him in a secret ballot are not great.
Despite the political prestige involved, the selection of a new president is far from the most pressing matter on the national agenda. Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz's decision to accept the harsh recommendations of the police investigation team over Jerusalem District Attorney Eli Abarbanel's recommendation that lesser charges be brought against Katsav, coming hot on the heels of the decision last week to launch a criminal investigation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the Bank Leumi sale, the earth-shattering investigation at the Tax Authority and Mazuz's controversial decision to press charges of sexual harassment against former justice minister Haim Ramon, all exhibit a newfound intolerance toward corruption and criminality at the highest level.
Former attorney-general Elyakim Rubinstein, and Mazuz at the start of his term, were reluctant to press charges against the mightiest in the land. Prime ministers Binyamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon all underwent police investigations, but none of them reached the threshold of charges that would have forced them to leave office.
Now Mazuz is sending a clear message: the threshold has been lowered.