(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Police on Wednesday questioned President Moshe Katsav for the fifth time on allegations of sexual assault, but added a new twist to the investigation - breach of trust, fraud and involvement in illegal wiretapping. Police revealed that more than seven women have testified against Katsav in sex-related offenses.
The investigation team, headed by Lt.-Cmdr. Yoav Segelovich, spent six hours questioning the president, who continued to claim that the former employee who launched the affair, "A," tried to blackmail him.
During the interrogation at Beit Hanassi, Katsav was for the first time confronted with allegations beyond the original sexual harassment complaint, including a long list of potential charges: fraud, breach of trust and illegal wiretapping.
Most of the additional crimes about which Katsav was investigated stem from earlier allegations that he sold pardons to criminals in exchange for cash deposited in foreign bank accounts.
The wiretapping claims deal with his alleged use of a special hi-tech phone line that allowed him to listen in on phone conversations held by Beit Hanassi employees. Police had already questioned two senior employees on Tuesday on suspicion of involvement in some of the alleged transgressions.
Shortly before Katsav completed the police inquiry session, the Knesset House Committee approved his request to take a 16-hour leave of absence to avoid the swearing in of Dorit Beinisch as Supreme Court president. Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik will take Katsav's place.
While the Knesset approved the request by a vote of 12 in favor, six against, and three abstentions, there was surprising criticism of Katsav by members of his own Likud party.
MK Gideon Sa'ar said that his request for a leave of absence showed his lack of respect for the Knesset and its committees. Sa'ar surprised committee members by announcing that he would abstain.
Law Committee chairman Menahem Ben-Sasson (Kadima) also slammed Katsav's request as a "corruption of the law."
The MKs for and against Katsav lined up on opposite sides of the room, causing several lawyers present to joke that the committee resembled a trial. Five of the six votes against Katsav came from MKs who sit on the Committee on the Status of Women. On the opposite side of the room, the votes in favor all came from MKs from National Union-National Religious Party, Shas and the Likud.
The most vocal criticism came from Zehava Gal-On (Meretz) and Shelly Yacimovich (Labor), who have championed Katsav's accusers for the past several weeks. Yacimovich has made waves in recent weeks by meeting with "A" and announcing that she believed that Katsav was guilty of rape.
Arguments broke out between Yacimovich and Yitzhak Galanti (Gil Pensioners Party), who yelled several times during the meeting that Katsav was innocent until proven guilty, and that the MKs needed to stop acting as though he were a serial rapist.
Yuval Steinitz (Likud) caused an uproar when he compared Katsav and former US president Bill Clinton. While Clinton offered Monica Lewinsky hundreds of thousands of dollars to withdraw her complaint against him, Katsav refused to give in to blackmail, he said, and instead accused his former employer of extortion. "Now he is being hung out to dry," he added.
Committee chairman Ruhama Avraham (Kadima), one of those who abstained, called Katsav to step down for a period of "no less than three months" while he was under investigation.
Meanwhile, right-wing activists Itamar Ben-Gvir and Baruch Marzel submitted a petition to the High Court demanding that the House Committee's approval of Katsav's request be revoked.
"Katsav's declaration is illegal and his abstention is fictitious," the petition read.
Legal representatives for Katsav had originally requested a two-hour leave, but were forced to change that request after MKs said they would only consider voting for the measure if it were a longer period.
Katsav has come under harsh criticism for refusing to step down from office while police investigate several accusations of rape and sexual harassment against him.
He responded angrily on Wednesday night to the fresh wave of allegations against him, calling them "a dirty plot" and "a web of malicious lies" fabricated by a criminal element over a long period of time with the aim of ousting him.
Katsav, who has steadfastly denied any sexual improprieties or cronyism with regard to pardons, insisted that the truth will out, and it was this belief which sustained him and his family in these difficult times, he said.
He said also that he would not allow the spate of new revelations during interrogations to break his spirit. He added that he was determined to continue to fight for his good name and to disprove the allegations against him "until truth and justice prevail."
Segelovich is expected to meet as early as next week with Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz to review the results of the investigation, decide how to proceed and determine if there is sufficient material for an indictment.
Rebecca Anna Stoil and Greer Fay Cashman contributed to this report.