According to the letter of the law, despite the attorney-general's decision to indict him pending a hearing, President Moshe Katsav can potentially serve out his seven-year term of office, which expires in July, without skipping a beat. Should Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz decide that there is sufficient evidence to charge Katsav with the crimes of which he is currently suspected, the most the law permits him to do is to draw up the indictment and stick it in his drawer for the time being.
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Article 14 of the Basic Law: The President states that "The president of the state shall not be criminally prosecuted." The only institution that can dismiss the president without his acquiescence before the end of his term is the Knesset.
But the law made certain it would be difficult to do so.
According to its provisions, 20 MKs must lodge a complaint to the House Committee against the president. If three-quarters of the committee votes to remove him from office, the resolution is brought before the plenum, where a majority of 90 MKs is required to approve it.
It is uncertain whether the current Knesset would be able to garner the necessary majorities to oust Katsav.
But it may not have to. Katsav has already promised to suspend himself should Mazuz decide to indict him pending a hearing. He made the promise during a hearing on a petition by Attorney Yossi Fuchs to the High Court of Justice to suspend him immediately. That milestone was reached Tuesday.
The original law did not afford the president such a possibility. Its suspension provision was added as an amendment to the Basic Law: The President in the wake of the scandal involving his predecessor, Ezer Weizman. Weizman was questioned by police over large sums of money that he had received from his friend Edward Seroussi. Despite the embarrassment over having a president under police interrogation for the first time in Israel's history, there was no way to suspend him during the investigation. Realizing there was a loophole in the law, the Knesset amended it in 1993, with Katsav's support.
Now it looks like Katsav will make use of the amendment himself.
According to his lawyers' promise in the High Court, he will suspend himself until the hearing in his case, after which Mazuz will make a final decision as to whether to indict him or not. Should Mazuz decide to indict him, Katsav has promised to resign.
During the suspension period, Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik will replace Katsav as president. According to the law, Katsav can continue to suspend himself indefinitely. Since the end of his term is so close, he may be hoping that it will expire without his having to take the historically embarrassing step of resigning from office. His lawyers could help him by trying to stall the hearing with Mazuz until the regularly scheduled elections for a new president are held in the summer.
One way or the other, time is running out for Katsav. Whether or not he resigns a few months from now or whether he formally completes his term in office - despite the lengthy suspension - should Mazuz decide to indict him, the president will be facing trial quite soon.