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Notwithstanding the fact that he is scheduled to face a new round of police interrogation on Wednesday, reportedly with fresh evidence related to his alleged sexual misconduct against a former employee, President Moshe Katsav was upbeat on Monday as he stood on the ornate carpet in the reception area of Beit Hanassi to receive the credentials of four new ambassadors - two of them female.
For a Jerusalem Online video of events click here
His face wreathed in a broad smile, Katsav warmly shook hands with the new envoys, and with a spring in his step, led them into a smaller, more intimate room where he toasted their success and held a private conversation with each of them with the participation of senior Beit Hanassi aides, Foreign Ministry representatives and senior staff members of the respective embassies.
Later Monday, Katsav's wife Gila spoke out in defense of her husband for the first time since police began investigating the allegations against the president and the claims by Katsav that the accuser, known as A., was attempting to blackmail him.
"My husband and I are going through difficult times," said the first lady, speaking at the opening of an art exhibit at the Jerusalem Theater to benefit at-risk women. "But we will make it through these difficult days, and I have no doubt that his innocence will come to light."
Police announced on Monday that Katsav would face a second round of intensive questioning on Wednesday and Thursday of this week.
Two weeks ago, police began questioning the president in two marathon sessions, each of which lasted well over five hours. Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz and Police Insp.-Gen Moshe Karadi met last week with investigation heads, and determined that the investigation into Katsav's allegations and A.'s counter-allegations should continue.
Prior to Monday's announcement, Katsav had already been warned that he should expect further questioning.
Sources close to Beit Hanassi said on Monday that the fact that
there was to be further questioning was itself something of a blow, since they believed Katsav would have hoped to have been able to thoroughly puncture the allegations against him during the two previous lengthy sessions and thus put an end to the matter.
Nonetheless, the sources said, Katsav had been consistently upbeat and confident in recent days, and was showing no hint of being troubled by the probe. They added that the allegations were emphatically not being discussed by Beit Hanassi staffers, and that there was a kind of "surreal atmosphere" at the residence - with a subject that was so preoccupying the media not being debated at all in the corridors at the very eye of the storm.
Generally speaking, events such as Monday's presentations of
credentials do not attract much media attention unless the ambassador in question comes from an Arab country or the US. This time, however, there was an unusually large turnout of reporters, photographers and television crews. But journalists waited in vain for an opportunity to question the president with regard to his personal predicament.
The usual protocol with regard to the media is that they are permitted into the private room for a photo opportunity - but no questions. As Katsav and Farkhod Ibragimovich Khakimov, the new Ambassador of Uzbekistan, raised their glasses for a mutual toast, one reporter, mindless of requests by Beit Hanassi spokeswoman Hagit Cohen that he desist, nonetheless fired questions at both the president and the envoy. "You're disturbing the ceremony," said Katsav in annoyance. The journalists were ushered out by one of the president's bodyguards, who also doubles as the supervisor of ceremonies at Beit Hanassi.
Later, when Katsav and Khakimov emerged, the new ambassador was asked Khakimov whether he encountered any problem being in Israel at this time as the ambassador of a Muslim country. Genuinely surprised by the question in view of his country's excellent relations with Israel since the fall of Communism, not to mention that Uzbekistan has for centuries been a hospitable host country to its Jewish population and to Jews from other countries seeking a safe haven, Khakimov replied that there was no problem at all, and if anything, he wanted to enhance the existing good relations.
Khakimov was the second ambassador to present credentials after Belgian Ambassador Danielle Del Marmol-Guilbert, to whom Katsav expressed appreciation for Belgium's willingness to send soldiers to join the multi-national forces in Lebanon.
The third envoy was British Ambassador Richard Vaughan Phillips, who had previously served in a position of lesser rank in his country's embassy in Israel 15 years ago, and who marveled at the enormous changes in the country since then. Asked by journalists about the specific purpose of the upcoming visit by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Phillips said that there was no confirmed date for the prime minister's visit to Israel. Phillips also told Katsav in their private conversation that there was no confirmed date; however according to the Foreign Ministry's Protocol Department, Blair will be arriving on Saturday night.
Questioned further as to whether Britain is in any way involved in securing the release of the three abducted IDF soldiers Gilad Shalit, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, Phillips replied that his country was supportive of all efforts to secure the release of the soldiers, but not directly involved.
Before emerging from their tete-a-tete, Katsav showed Phillips a handsome table that had once belonged to British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, and which had been presented to Beit Hanassi by brothers David and Jonathan Herman.
Phillips signed his name in the visitors' book in Hebrew.Lithuanian Ambassador Asta Skaisgiryte Liauskiene, who was previously her country's ambassador to France and who has been studying Hebrew, presented her credentials in the language of her host country, and promised that within a year, her Hebrew would be much better.
She said that she was very proud to have received this posting, and that she hoped to expand bilateral relations on the political, economic and cultural fronts. Lithuania once boasted a very important Jewish community, she said. "Our Jews went to Israel and now they're part of your society."
Katsav reviewed the latest developments in the Middle East with all four envoys, and warned that Iran represents a danger not only to Israel but to the whole of the western world.